#fridayflash: mutant city

There's a certain small city in Southwestern Ontario which, geographically and meteorologically speaking, lies in a pit. Its elevation is much lower than the surrounding landscape, and the weather patterns swirl in precipitation from three different regions, sort of like waste water collecting over a drain.

Thunderstorms are frequent there, even in winter, and often toxic. The residents like to boast that they don't have the environmental problems of their more industrialised neighbours, but the truth is they have their pollution. They get the atmospheric by-products of the petroleum refineries to the west, the heavy industry to the south, and the steel refineries to the northeast. It all falls on them, mixed in with their rain and snow. And, with an anomalous sub-tropical climate created this far north by that lowered elevation, they get a lot of rain and snow.

Strange things happen to the flora and fauna of the city: dragonflies with fifteen-centimetre wingspans look like they should have died out millions of years ago, but populate back gardens; masses of fish in the local river have sudden die-offs from diabetic shock.

And then there was the time the giant thistles showed up by the south branch of the river.

No-one paid them much mind at first, because they just looked like thistles. But they kept growing, and growing, until in the end their average height was just over a metre. They grew in the dead little strip of land between the local power plant and the river, where even grass wouldn't sprout. They stood there, stalks too thick to bend in the wind, with their purple-edged leaves and long white spikes. The locals took to calling them Triffids, and if they'd found one morning the plants had gained the ability to walk, no-one would have been too surprised.

The Triffids took second place to a newer and more frightening event in the neighbourhood. Beyond the power plant was a park, and the park got shut down and fenced off one day, with signs warning of health hazards if anyone went in. This bothered the residents greatly, since the park was a favourite neighbourhood shortcut, and they reasoned (quite rightly) that if it was hazardous this week, it had probably been hazardous for several weeks before that.

Earth-moving equipment was brought in: steam shovels, bulldozers, and several dump trucks to haul the dug-up earth away. People in hazmat suits walked up and down the river bank, right in the spot where the old men liked to fish with their grandchildren, and they used the gear to dig up and move so much dirt that the river was widened at that point, for a good hundred metres along the bank.

This all took about a week, and when the fences and signs finally came down, people stood at the edge of the park and tried to see what had happened. They didn't use it for a shortcut for a very long time. Some people checked the local paper for news, because surely if the river was being reshaped it was newsworthy, but nothing was ever reported.

The locals did notice, however, that sometime during the week the steam shovels had been in action, someone had chopped down and killed all of the Triffids. Nothing was left of them but some bleached, broken stalks with a few withered, spineless leaves attached near the base.

And, not too long afterwards, everyone forgot they had ever been there at all.

#fridayflash: controlled environment

"I was in a meeting this morning, and out of seven people, four of them were sick. Now I feel sick. Unbelievable."

Human Resources would like to remind you that flu season is upon us. Please read and follow the guidelines posted in all the kitchenettes and copy rooms to ensure we all stay healthy and productive.

"So l go to the doctor, and she says it's just a cold. Just a cold? I've had it for three weeks now! All I do is go to work and go home to sleep. I have no energy for anything else."

"It's the same as with everyone else who has it. Doris says she slept eleven hours every day this week. She's having trouble finding the time to pack her lunch, do housecleaning, stuff like that. Her kids made themselves sandwiches for dinner last night and left a huge mess in the kitchen 'cos she conked out on the couch."

"It's because people still come in when they're sick. So you're almost done getting over something, and then you catch something else while your immune system is still busy."

"Nice they think they're so bloody essential. Like there's no such thing as working from home."

"I swear next time we have a big meeting, they should bring bowls of cough lozenges instead of doughnuts."

This meeting is mandatory in-person. No conference call number will be provided.

Unfortunately, none of the bigger meeting rooms were available, so we'll all have to squeeze in. Please BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair).

"Just go home. And take a sick day tomorrow."

"Can't. The proposal has to go out for internal review by noon tomorrow."

"Do you want help?"

"It's okay —  it would take longer to explain to someone else than to just do, and I know you're sick too. But thank you."

Real Estate Services has advised that Friday 1 November, from 7pm to 10pm, the office ventilation system will be shut off for routine maintenance. The building will be closed after 6pm. If you need to do any work during the building closure, please VPN from another location.

"How long did you work last Friday?"

"'Til they kicked us all out at six, then a couple of hours after I got home. Why?"

"I must have just missed you. I got all the way to the mall and realised I left my wallet locked in my desk drawer — "

"Shit."

"Yeah, so I can't go without that all weekend, right? So I came back here and had to like beg the security guard to let me in. Get this, they had to accompany me. So my wallet was in my desk drawer where I left it, no big deal..."

"Okay..."

"And when I'm leaving, the security guard is kind of hustling me out, and.... it's hard to explain, but he kept sort of blocking my view of the window, even when you think it would make more sense for him to stand by the door, you know? So I lied and told him I'd left my access card in the car —  really it was in my pants pocket, but he'd worked the elevator and opened the door for us, so he didn't know that. So he has to go ahead of me to open the door to get out, and I took a quick glance out the window. Get this: there were people working on those big fans on the roof of the north tower, and they were wearing hazmat suits."

"Get out!"

"Seriously."

"Are you sure they weren't just wearing overalls and welding masks or something? They said maintenance."

"No way. They looked like they were collecting samples, too."

"Samples of what?"

"Don't know. I just got the one look out the window and the guard practically pushed me through the door."

"Weird."

"Tell me about it. Say, do you have any antihistamines left? The non-drowsy kind?"

"Shit, I'm all out again, sorry. Try Cheryl."

CONFIDENTIAL - DO NOT DISTRIBUTE

The building air filters have been infused with a new variant. Productivity levels are expected to remain steady based on last quarter's results. FTEs will, on average, be capable of maintaining expected productivity levels, but not have the energy to seek out other opportunities.

#fridayflash: brain power

When Trak emitter waves pass through an object in space, the object is not destroyed as it would be from a standard munition. Instead, all the molecules within the object vibrate from the emitter energy. Brittle objects will shatter if hit enough times in a narrow enough time window; gasses, liquids, and more flexible solids will fare better, but the kinetic energy of the vibrations will make them heat up. The process of destroying something like a starship involves targeting the ship enough times in a sufficiently small timespan that the ship is destroyed either from the hull vibrating apart, or from the ship's breathing air expanding so much it causes the ship to explode.

Often ships survive an assault nearly intact, but with their occupants cooked alive. To a Trak, this is the best outcome. They put so much research into the emitter wave technology that their knowledge of starship engineering is notably lacking. They tend to target parts of the ship where they know there will be a lot of personnel during an attack — logistical quarters, the bridge, communications bays. They have captured enough ships to know how to identify their targets with excellent precision.

And that was why Commander Qreq was in what was left of her ship's last working communication bay, trying to find a way to complete the necessary calculations for a hyperjump. The communications personnel were slumped around her, all of them dead. The stench of boiled meat hung thick in the desiccated, overheated air. Most of the command panels had slightly melted and then re-hardened once the attack was over, making them useless for interfacing with the shipboard computer.

Qreq sat at the one surviving panel, the only access to any shipboard computing. She resisted the urge to gouge her claw across the wall in frustration. If she didn't navigate out of attack range quickly, she and the rest of the crew yet living would be cooked or captured, along with the ship.

The Trak had yet to capture a ship with hyperjump capabilites. Qreq didn't want her name attached to the first one they got.

She'd come up the chain of command through the communications corps. It would have been almost nostalgic to sit at a console again if the situation hadn't been so awful. At the first detection of emitter vibrations, she had ordered her bridge crew to take shelter in a utility closet, but the swath of waves had been too broad, and the attack had killed them. There had been no room for Qreq, so she had run down the corridor, stopping halfway between the bridge and the nearest logistics region. Her breathing bladder felt scorched from inhaling heated air, but at least she was alive.

Communications machines were specialised for transmission, reception, and translation of data. They had no way of computing the delicate calculations needed to complete a hyperjump, nor the general processing power to tell the engine room to engage the drive with the correct coordinates.

Qreq would have to send the data and formulae off-ship for the calculations, then find a way to transmit the results to the engine room. The Trak had chased her ship to a malformed solar system in the far reaches of an obscure galaxy, and if previous reports were accurate, she had about fifteen minutes before the next attack.

She checked the coordinates again. Beyond the mess left behind by a failed planet, there were supposed to be several large masses orbiting very close to the central star. One of them was rumoured to be carbon-rich. The computers of Qreq's world all used carbon-lattice processing architectures.

Qreq used the transmission locator on the console to locate a source of carbon among the system's inner planets, and hissed with relief when the next planet after the orbiting ruins lit up almost in its entirety. She quickly retrieved the calculations routine, added the ship's current coordinates, and tacked on a script to make the calculated destination transmit back to the engine room's reception address.

She pinched the send control for subspace transmissions and tapped her claw on the side of the console for luck. All she needed was a lattice of sufficient size and density, with just a little electricity running through it, and she might be able to thwart those Trak bastards after all.

"How's the novel going?"

"Huh? Oh," said Charlotte as her husband started laughing. "Have you just been standing there?"

"For the last five minutes," said Brad. "At first I thought you were thinking, but then I thought you were sleeping with your eyes open."

"I totally spaced out. When was the last time I typed something..." Charlotte checked her computer. "Ouch."

"Still a ways to go before you win NaNoWriMo, eh?"

"Yeah." Charlotte sorted through her notes as Brad walked away. "Hon?"

"Yeah?"

"Do we have any shrimp left in the freezer? I really feel like seafood for dinner all of a sudden."

"We should. What brought that on?"

"No idea."

A shudder rippled through Qreq's ship. She let out a burble of panic, then rumbled in delight as she realised the shudder was from the giant hyperjump engines spooling up. She counted to twelve slowly, and just when she thought that surely the engines were malfunctioning and tearing the ship apart, they stopped.

Qreq ran to the window at the end of the communications bay. The view showed blue flickers of plasma, and long white streaks as the ship manoeuvred around stars in hyperspace.

The calculations had worked. Qreq returned to the communications bay and saved the carbon lattice planet's information to the transmission list. She noted that according to the data the locator had gleaned, it was about halfway between equinox and solstice. She wondered if that had anything to do with finding a carbon lattice running idle so easily.

Never mind. The calculated coordinates should bring them almost within far orbit of the home planet, easily within range to send out a distress call. Qreq left the communications bay to make an inspection of the ship and search for survivors.

#fridayflash: corporate event

Meg shifted the stack of papers on her desk. "Go ahead," she said with her back to Candice.

"Oh that's perfect!" Candice stepped first onto a visitor's chair, then the empty area on Meg's desk. Meg wondered, not for the first time that morning, why Candice had worn a pencil skirt and stilettos on a day when she knew she'd be putting up the Take Our Kids to Work Day decorations.

Because she's Candice thought Meg, as she pretended that entering a column of numbers into a spreadsheet was a very interesting thing to do.

"Is the banner straight now? Is it? Oh Joyce, could you just be a love and check for me? Is it straight?"

Meg considered telling Candice to let Joyce take a look without being yammered at, but thought the better of it. She consoled herself by picturing Candice falling off the desk and breaking her neck. The office should be so lucky.

"Who's the bright spark who decided to hold this so close to Hallowe'en every year, anyhow?" she asked as Candice made a great show of clambering down to the floor level.

"Oh, but it's national," Candice said.

And so is Hallowe'en, thought Meg.

"Isn't Bradley shadowing you this year, Meg?" said Joyce, probably desperate to change the subject.

"He's with me, yes," said Meg. "He wants to do what Tom does, but Tom's department can't participate. It's all outdoors and heavy equipment. Safety regs. You know."

"It'll still be useful for him to see what his mummy does," said Candice for all the office to hear. She tottered off to the site of the next decoration.

"Safety regs?" Joyce whispered. "C'mon Meg, even Candice isn't that thick. Cut her some slack."

Meg shrugged, all innocence. Joyce wagged a tentacle at her and ran to catch up with Candice. Meg noted how the bright colours on the banner clashed with the official corporate green-grey of the walls and carpet. She sighed and turned back to her work.

Meg's computer screeched, announcing a new e-mail. She checked her inbox. The floor manager was going to bring all the visiting teenagers to the camera room, so they could see the operational side through the security monitors. Meg smiled; that would make Brad happy.

The next day, on Take Your Kid to Work Day itself, participating parents and spawn were treated to breakfast in the boardroom. The floor manager made a speech about the importance of the event, and then led all the shadows away to the camera room.

"So that was your son in the brown suit, right?" Joyce hissed as they left the boardroom.

"That was him," said Meg. "I spent an hour last night letting out the hems on his trousers."

"He's growing into a real monster," said Joyce. "Is he taller than Tom now?"

"Not quite, but we think he's going to be."

"Lucky you."

They settled into their respective cubicles and got to work. Meg made a point of trying to save the more interesting things she had to do that day for later, when she could show them to Brad.

She didn't get much work done. Nor, it seemed, did any of the other parents. Co-workers who were walking by kept stopping to give reports on how things were going in the camera room.

"The manager's not just doing a tour," said Bill, one of the accountants Meg sent data to. "He's asking questions. Your Bradley was answering a lot of them, by the way, and very well too."

"He's been asking, so between Tom and I we've been trying to explain to him," said Meg.

Bill leaned down over Meg's desk so he could whisper to her. "Candice's girl got something wrong, and your boy corrected her. He knew the ships don't have captives on them, but volunteer sacrifices."

"Oh yes," said Meg. "He and Tom were discussing that over dinner just a couple of nights ago."

"Well, the manager was impressed, let me tell you. Brad will have a nice recommendation at the end of this if he plays his cards right."

"That would be lovely," said Meg, and Bill walked away. She turned back to her work and added another paragraph to a report. As much as Bill's news was good, it made her nervous. Surely today was just about letting the spawn see what the working world was like. She hated the idea that they would be evaluated for service without having a chance to prepare.

Bradley appeared just before lunch, and said the floor manager had told all the teens to collect their parents for lunch. Meg locked her computer and hurried to follow him to the cafeteria.

"I spotted Dad on the cameras!" Brad said as they slid into an elevator. "He was signaling to a ship's captain that the hold was closed and they were ready to go."

"Lots of offerings this time of year," said Meg.

"Where do they take them to?"

"It's hard to explain. The Great Old Ones sleep at the bottom of the ocean, in a very deep trench. There's not much to mark it on the surface. Before GPS and the live NASA feed from the Hubble telescope, they had to wait until the stars were right."

"But that's what you do, don't you?"

"Sort of. I get data on the volunteer sacrifices, the star charts, and the shipping conditions, and put it together into some sort of timetable. If I can arrange things so that we save money on crew and fuel, it goes towards my end of year bonus. I'll show you after lunch."

"This is so cool." Brad's one grey-green eye gleamed.

"I'm glad you're enjoying it."

The elevator doors opened and they made their way to the cafeteria. The floor manager greeted them at the door.

"Did you tell your mother about your morning?" he said.

"There's so much to tell!" said Brad. "This is so great."

"Glad to hear it." The floor manager beamed at Meg.

"Cthulhu fthagen!" said Brad.

The floor manager's smile widened. "Cthulhu fthagen," he said. "Now do make sure you get in the lunch queue quickly — we've got human on the menu as a special treat."


Happy Hallowe'en to all the monsters.

#fridayflash: 50k

On the first day of NaNoWriMo, Andrew wrote about the dinosaurs. There were hunts by carnivores and narrow escapes by herbivores, and then an asteroid fell to Earth and killed all of them except for the crocodiles and the birds. Andrew gave one of the velociraptor characters a pet chinchilla named Squiffy, and when the asteroid fell Squiffy survived and swore revenge against any orbiting object not classified as a moon or planet.

The end of the writing day saw Andrew describing Squiffy shaking his little chinchilla fist at the night sky. Andrew posted nearly 5,000 words to his NaNoWriMo profile.

On the second day of NaNoWriMo, Andrew remembered he'd ended with a night sky and something about space objects under a certain diameter. He wrote about an intergalactic space battle being staged between Saturn and Jupiter, with the Earth completely oblivious because all the fighting occurred in Dimension X, and besides, Voyagers 1 and 2 were long finished with that part of space.

The leader of the good guy aliens was a chinchilla-like creature named Captain Squiffy. Squiffy was kind and compassionate, but knew how to always pick the right choice when it was time for tough decisions.

The bad aliens had better guns and faster ships. They destroyed the good aliens' ship. Of all the crew, only Squiffy made it to an escape pod.

The escape pod hurtled through the solar system to the nearest inhabitable planet — Earth. But Squiffy watched the aftermath of the battle through the escape pod's only portal and shook his chinchilla-like fist. He swore revenge for his crew against the bad aliens.

Andrew finished the day at just over 13,000 words in total. He updated his profile and went to bed.

The morning of the third day of NaNoWriMo, Andrew wrote about a far-future Earth. The human race had wiped itself out through poor management of natural resources and eating too much junk food. The dominant civilised species were highly evolved descendants of chinchillas. One of them, a scientist named Squiffy, had discovered a way to travel through Dimension X. She was lecturing on her discovery, showing a view of Dimension X on the giant computer screen behind her podium, when all of a sudden the scientists in the audience gasped.

Dr. Squiffy turned to see what they were pointing and staring at on the giant computer screen. "It can't be," she said.

The alien escape pod hurtled through Dimension X towards Earth.

Andrew wrote a lot about Dr. Squiffy and her efforts to rescue the occupants of the escape pod from Dimension X. By the time he was done, technically it was Day 4 of NaNoWriMo already. He was a little upset his word count would be marked as zero for Day 3, but pleased that he was almost at 26,000 words.

Andrew spent the rest of Day 4 sleeping and getting chores done around the apartment, because his roommate Doug complained he hadn't done any in almost a week.

On Day 5 of NaNoWriMo, Andrew wrote about the escape pod landing on Earth, but still inside Dimension X. The Dimension X Earth was still ruled by the dinosaurs. Captain Squiffy befriended a velociraptor. Because he was a scientist before he became a spaceship leader, he made detailed studies of Earth, saving everything in the escape pod's on-board computer.

Andrew finished Day 5 with just over 20,000 words left to go. Dr. Squiffy and her team of smart, brave scientists had just arrived in Dimension X, only a few kilometres from the escape pod landing site.

On Day 6, Andrew wrote about a Tyrannosaurus Rex discovering the team of Earth scientist chinchillas and attacking them. Captain Squiffy's friend, the velociraptor, went to see what the T. Rex was attacking, in case he could get an easy meal out of the leftovers. Upon discovering that the creatures under attack were so similar to his own beloved friend, the velociraptor called upon his entire velociraptor tribe (Andrew left a note to himself — was it reasonable that the velociraptors in Dimension X had evolved into a tribal social structure?)

The velociraptors ganged up against the T. Rex after some of the other scientists were killed, but not Dr. Squiffy. The friendly velociraptor led her to Captain Squiffy's escape pod, where they finally met.

Andrew did a word count at this point. The battle between the tribe of velociraptors and the T. Rex had been very drawn-out and detailed (to be fair, the chinchilla scientists didn't just sit around, but helped defend themselves). He was only about 5,000 words short of winning NaNoWriMo.

On Day 7, the Captain and Dr. Squiffy discovered that they spoke the same language, and spent a long time discussing how this could be before Captain Squiffy showed Dr. Squiffy and the surviving scientists the detailed notes he'd taken about Earth dinosaur life. The scientists discovered that the portal between their Earth and Dimension X was closing, so they ran for it, but the two Squiffys decided to stay together.

Andrew closed the day at just over 53,000 words and downloaded his winning NaNoWriMo certificate.

"I did it," he said to his roommate.

"Did what?" said Doug, not looking up from the comic book he was reading.

"I won the novel writing contest."

"Already? Don't you have until the end of the month or something?"

"Yeah."

"Cool." Doug turned the page.

"What do you think about me getting a chinchilla?"

"A what?"

"A chinchilla. For a pet."

"What the hell are you going to do with a chinchilla?"

"I'd name it Squiffy, for one."

Doug finally stopped reading the comic book. "You want to name your pet chinchilla Squiffy."

"Yeah, I just said that."

Doug rolled his eyes. "That word, I do not think it means what you think it means." He went back to reading his comic book. "All the cleaning and food and vets and stuff would be down to you. I'm not helping."

"Cool."

"So what's the novel about?"

"It's a depiction of how the same personality reacts to different temporal and physical settings. You know, like 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' or Cloud Atlas."

"You did talking dinosaurs again, didn't you?"

"No." Andrew saved and closed his document file before Doug could see.

#fridayflash: clock

The computer chimed. Dr. Bancroft ate one more mouthful of fried rice and checked the data results as he chewed and swallowed. As soon as the rice was deposited in his stomach, he smiled.

"Eight per cent better than projected," he called out.

Dr. Scugog popped his head in the door. "Eight, did you say? Or point eight?"

"Eight," said Dr. Bancroft, triumphantly scooping up another chopsticks' worth of rice.

"When the hell did you order food?" Dr. Scugog hurried in the door.

"Half an hour ago. Help yourself — I got the feast for four."

"Thanks. Were you expecting someone else to be around tonight?"

Dr. Bancroft shook his head "no" as he swallowed. "It's the best deal on the menu, and meh, if there's any left I don't have to make lunch for a few days."

"Fair enough." Dr. Scugog stepped behind Dr. Bancroft's chair so he could look at the report and eat at the same time. "Wow. Nice. What happens when the temperature shift happens, though?"

"Natural course of events," said Dr. Bancroft. He pointed at one list of numbers with his chopsticks. "So the algae population doubles once an hour under optimal conditions, and 'optimal conditions' have been defined as present-day global warming levels. A bit too warm, but not Disaster Fun Time Hour yet. Right?"

"Which model did you go with..." Dr. Scugog spotted a book on Dr. Bancroft's desk. "Okay, right, those numbers make sense."

"These little guys eat carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. They love the stuff. Thrive on it. But eventually they eat enough, or at least they ate enough under lab conditions that, here, these numbers show, the base temperature goes down one degree C, and then see?" Bancroft pointed to another set of numbers.

"They just die off?"

"Yeah, but with the carbon and water acidity maintained because these little guys have locked it away. So it's like the work of the rainforest, except without the rainforest. How cool is that?"

"So will you be throwing a party when you win the Nobel Prize?"

"Of course I am. Pizza and ice cream all around."

Scugog grinned and ate some more food.

"And if the temp rises again... we reintroduce them, rinse, lather, repeat," said Bancroft.

"Sounds too easy to be true."

"Easy? It was definitely not easy getting these suckers developed. Now that they are, though..." Bancroft helped himself to some lemon chicken.

The computer chimed again, and a progress bar started marching across the top of the screen.

"What's that?"

"I set it to refresh automatically every five minutes. It generates the report, saves it, and then the timer starts running again. I hate having to just push the Enter key on a timer. Makes me feel like one of those rats we used in second year, you know?"

"You didn't want to reward yourself with a food pellet after every successful keypress?"

"I circumvented the test and found a way to get the food anyhow." Bancroft waved a piece of chicken around on his chopsticks.

"Oh yeah! Speaking of rats..." Dr. Scugog told Dr. Bancroft about an article he'd read recently. The two men continued to chat, and Dr. Bancroft went to get a drink from the nearest campus vending machine. When he returned, Scugog was frowning.

"You sure you don't have a bug in the calculation routines? Since you let me look before I thought it would be okay to check, and these numbers..."

Bancroft frowned and sat down at his desk. "I see what you mean. Well, maybe the population is still bottoming out."

Scugog raised an eyebrow. "It's going up, looks more like. Can a big enough mass of these things generate heat?"

"Maybe...." The progress bar appeared at the top of the screen again. Both men watched it grow, two character widths every second. The computer chimed and refreshed the report.

"Can't be," said Bancroft. "Can't be — see that number? The population would have to take up fifty per cent more space than the grow tank allows for that to be true. I must have a bug. Dammit! I thought I'd checked everything. Goddamn it." He drank a slug of cola and slammed the top of his desk with his fist.

"Might be a bad probe in the tank. You said the reports are saving automatically, right? C'mon, let's walk down to the lab. I'll help you troubleshoot it. Those things are a bitch to test with just one person."

Dr. Bancroft sighed. "Appreciate it." He gulped down the rest of his drink. "Now okay?"

"Sure, I'm done eating." They got up and left just as the progress bar started to march across the screen again.

"Busted hardware or no busted hardware, I'm going to have to destroy the sample and run the whole damn thing over again," said Bancroft as they walked down the corridor.

"Yeah, but you want to know what was wrong with it before you re-run the test. Could still be promising. Might have been good data at first."

Bancroft snorted. "Who the hell died and made you the department optimist?"

Scugog shrugged. "I just mean don't freak out yet. Happens to everyone." He sniffed. "Smell that?"

"Yeah, now that you mention it," said Bancroft. "Smells like we have a really nasty case of mildew."

"It's those damn overnight cleaners," said Scugog. "They think because hardly any of us are around at night, they can skip shit. Like they don't know this is a freaking laboratory or something." They reached the door at the end of the corridor.

"I hate to whine, but I guess we should say something to the dean," said Bancroft. "Monday." He tapped his security keycard against the reader. The door clicked open.

"Smell's worse in here," said Dr. Scugog. They walked down a narrower corridor and turned a corner.

The next door was stainless steel and required a different keycard, a thumbprint, and a combination to be punched in. Dr. Bancroft did the necessaries and opened the door.

Dr. Scugog screamed first. Dr. Bancroft tried to push the door shut again, but was overwhelmed before he could do so.

Back in the office, the computer chimed.

#fridayflash: the benefits of myopia

I tried to do this art photo series once, black and white, just ordinary objects. The trick was I wanted to make the camera's lens as out of focus as my eyes are when I don't have my glasses on. It's funny to me, but even adults sometimes really don't understand what it's like to be nearsighted. At least children will ask.

I still think it was a good idea, but I ran into technical difficulties: the camera's lens couldn't go as out of focus as my eyes. Not even close. I suppose with different gear I might be able to pull it off, but in the end it was just a whim, so I've never tried.

People have this funny stereotype of the half-blind stumbling around when they don't have their specs on, but if you're in a place you know, it's not much different than seeing things sharply. Yes, I have to press my nose right up against the washroom mirror to put makeup on, but there's a kind of beauty to the blur that's hard to explain.

Beauty, and wonder. Lots of subjective wonder. Like sometimes, when I wake up from a really good sleep, just for a moment if feels like I get a glimpse of the entire room in focus without the help of any apparatus. Then it falls apart to blurriness again. Someone with 20/20 vision can't appreciate that. It's like there's this fuzzy, half-hidden world that only the sand-blind get to know about, and we need the lenses to see the other, sharper world.

With my glasses off, I'm not like those fully-sighted people who think that, every once in a while, they see shadows without sources. I know which ones they are. They're the ones which are still nice and crisp when everything else is a blur.

The shadow-people will talk to us. Not right away, of course. But if you consistently show that you're not afraid of them, they'll stop disappearing every time they know they've been spotted. And if you're consistently friendly every time they pass through, they'll start to be friendly back.

The shadows love fairness, and vindication appeals to them. Did you throw snowballs at me in sixth grade, when my glasses were so fogged up that I could see better without them, but not well enough to see the chunk of ice that smacked me in the face? The shadows are going to exact revenge for me.

Believe me, that's something I can hardly wait to see. I might even take photos.

#fridayflash: protocols

Frank flipped desktop panels and refreshed the web page. No new page visits. So not exactly a hotspot of internet attention. He flipped back to the editor, added two more lines of code, and told the project to compile.

His computer had enough CPU power that he could have flipped back to the web page, but with this code he didn't want to risk anything. He checked his coffee cup and sipped back the last cold dregs. He didn't want any more, but made himself go to the kitchen and fix himself another cup from what was left in the pot. Anything to stop from thinking.

Yes, your niece's class newspaper is an amateur news outlet, but they have a publicly available web page, so it's still a news outlet. The protocols are very clear — no talking to the press in any form without permission from the Prime Minister's office. That goes for all scientists working for Canadian government posts. You've applied for permission before. You know that.

He had told the HR rep that he also knew his niece was twelve years old, as was everyone else in her class, but she'd just said rules were rules.

Frank sighed and filled his coffee cup three-quarters of the way, leaving space for milk and sugar. It wouldn't have bothered him so much — with his skill set, he had opportunities in the private sector — except that they had also stopped funding for his project without even checking on the status.

"Goddamn bureaucrats," he muttered. He took a sip of coffee, burned his tongue, and spat it back into the cup. Who cancelled a weather satellite programme just after it was launched, anyhow? The big money had already been spent. Now the satellite was orbiting the earth, and the HR rep had told him no-one was going to try to collect its data or communicate with it, just because the government had decided to spend the money elsewhere.

Holding the coffee cup with his fingertips, he returned to his office. His code was almost compiled.

Frank set the coffee cup down and picked up his phone. His finger hovered over the e-mail icon. There were already some job offers in his inbox. He tapped the web browser icon instead and navigated to his niece's class newspaper site and the article she'd written, interviewing him about the Alouette satellite Canada had launched in 1962.

Fifty-six page hits, according to the old-fashioned counter at the bottom of the page. Probably the teacher who had set up the site had last learned about web page design in the 1990s.

At least half those page hits were from Frank himself. The rest had cost him his job and the five-year satellite project.

His computer chimed, and he turned his attention to the code project. He made himself take another cautious sip of coffee.

The satellite was supposed to send back photos and data on the effects of climate change over northern Canada. To do that, it had to be turned on from the ground. Only someone who knew the initial settings and passwords could do that.

If a government employee tried to talk to the satellite, they'd be in breach of their terms of employment for working on a programme officially declared dead.

But Frank wasn't a government employee anymore.

He executed the code and made himself take another sip of coffee, reminding himself that the satellite would need a few seconds to receive and transmit.

The computer screen flashed, and Frank hurriedly set down the coffee cup and read the response.

Hey. I can see my house from here.

Frank smiled and told the communications module to only respond to his messages.

#fridayflash: chlorine and rosewater

Archibald wheezes from his one good lung, makes a half turn and shoots phlegm to the pavement. Not in front of the shop door he's lurching through now: that's the door to Archie's shop, and he's very proud. No, he's deposited the slimy green string on his neighbour's step, the bicycle shop. Archie leaves the street like he doesn't care, but when he shuts his door behind him, he checks his aim. He grins. The gob is right in the centre of the step. Impossible for customers wheeling their machines in or out to miss it.

The sign over his shop door says, "Archibald Grotsky & Sons, Apothecaries," but there are no sons and there never were, no matter what that whore over in Rosewater Lane likes to claim. Old Archie just likes the ring of it is all, same as he likes it when the customers assume he lost his lung in the Great War. Really it was just before — an unfortunate night with some badly-measured chlorine compounds and a bottle of cheap gin. But he can't see that it harms anyone not to know that, so he stays mum.

It's nearly four o'clock, and Archibald thinks he deserves a cup of tea. He's had twice as much custom as normal, and he hasn't even had a chance to check inventory.

He peers at the old brass clock that keeps watch above the door. It tells him there are precisely five minutes before the hour.

All right, Archibald bargains with himself. Five more minutes, and if no-one comes in he'll flip the sign just long enough to put the kettle on.

Four minutes on, and it feels like the entire street has been abandoned. Well then, Archibald thinks, can't cheat the proprietor if that's who you be, and he turns to just nip in back and get the water started...

... when the door clicks and the bell startles.

Archibald wheels around, and for a moment he's certain Jim Fleet's ghost has come to make good at last, because he doesn't see anyone. Then he glances down and spies a small, pinched-looking girl standing a few paces from the counter.

"And where did you arrive from?" he says to the urchin.

"Rosewater Lane," replies the girl.

Archibald frowns and waits a beat to get a better look. The girl is wearing a shabby but unpatched red coat, with an orange muffler round her throat, badly knitted. Her black stockings disappear into little purple boots maybe a dozen years out of fashion.

But the girl's face, the small eyes, large nose, and thin mouth glaring balefully from under a tumble of too-straight dirty blonde hair... An ugly, angry little creature, with far too many features just like his own. The blonde was shifting to mousy brown already, and she couldn't be more than nine.

Damn that whore, Archibald thinks. She always did have a bent sense of humour.

He feels his own nose wrinkling in contempt, which he quickly covers with his best professional smile.

"And what does the little lady need today?" he says.

The girl's scowl deepens. "Mama said to get her some suppression powder. She says she's irregular."

Archie snorts, which to his embarrassment sets off a fresh round of wet coughing. "Irregular? She can just go to a herbalist's for that. Tell her to ask for senna tea."

The little girl rolls her eyes. "Her lunar cycles are what's irregular. That's why I said suppression powder. Don't you know anything?"

Archibald draws himself up straight, and only lets loose one short cough before he gets his lung under control. "I'm the best in the city. That's why you were sent here and all."

"Then the gods help us," the girl mutters, not quite under her breath. "Suppression powder, please." She reaches into one of her coat pockets and stands tiptoe to place three silver coins on the counter.

"Certainly," says Archibald, though all he can think is how badly he wants to toss the little bastard-bitch out the door, square into a patch of horse-dung if he can aim right. He places several brass weights on one side of his balance, and sets to tapping a variety of powders, dried leaves, and crystals onto the other side. When the brass needle points straight up he takes up a small glass jar and pours the mixture in with a flourish. He stoppers the jar and shakes it, then gives it to the girl.

The girl holds the jar against her coat with one arm, working the stopper off and dropping it on the floor. With her free hand she retrieves a lint-specked clay bottle from her pocket. Flicking the cap off with her thumb, she pours clear liquid from the bottle into the mixture in the jar.

Archibald has been too busy checking the coins and throwing them in his till to notice the girl's actions. But now a thin white mist is wafting from the jar, and it's making hissing sounds.

"You little wretch, what did you — " His eyes widen. "You can't add water to the whole lot at once! Just a dose at a time! You stupid little fool, you'll kill us both!" He makes to run around the counter, but fear sets off a paralysing new round of coughing.

"Not both of us," the girl says. "Just you." She sets the jar on the floor, restoppers it, then picks it up and tosses it over the counter with surprising force. She's aimed for the end nearest the back room door. Archibald could have caught it mid-air if he hadn't been nearly doubled over.

The jar smashes against the door to the back room, releasing thick clouds of white smoke. The little girl screams and runs out of the shop in well-practised hysteria.

Later the shop will air out. Later old Archibald will be found. Later the neighbours will learn he never did divorce his wife after all, nor update his will. Later the police will come to Rosewater Lane to relate the sad news to the next of kin, and discover that the poor wee daughter lost her mother but a week before, and is now alone in the world. How fortunate that between Archibald's and her mother's will she's worth enough to pay for her education and housing until well after she's of age.

And once the police leave, after she assures the last of the neighbours that she'd much prefer to sleep alone at home than be a bother, the girl takes a pendant from her night-table drawer and stares at the wreath of hair trapped in its glass dome.

"So, Mama," she says, "what shall we go and do next?"

#fridayflash: the evidence


Note for 20 September 2013. Patient ID CW-141-5359, name Cassandra Alicia Webb. Barry, a reminder that "Alicia" is the variant spelled as "Alice" except with "ia" at the end instead of "e", and "Webb" has two "b"s, not one.

Test results:
This is Day 3 of testing, and the general intent of today's tests was to attempt to confuse the subject and check on long-term memory. We started with a series of short-term memory tests which the subject had already performed on Day 1, but with different content.

Test 1a: subject was provided orally with a list of the five most recent Australian prime ministers. There was a fifteen-minute pause, during which we discussed the most recent American League East baseball games in general and the performance this season of the Toronto Blue Jays in particular. Not only did the subject mention several box scores during the pause conversation — Barry, make a note to check the source recording and see if all of her numbers were right, please — but she was able to recite all of the names of the prime ministers correctly, in the reverse order from how they were provided. She also noted that we started the sessions with the same test using Canadian prime ministers, and asked if we were testing her knowledge of politics. This is another instance where the subject has exhibited mild belligerence and/or frustration with the testing.

Tests 1b and 1c: number and shape memorisation. Same numbers and shapes as last time, but in a different order from the tests conducted on Day 1. Again the subject scored 100% on recall and supplied the responses from the Day 1 versions herself after providing the Day 3 answers.

General observations: the subject recites the responses rapidly and in a slightly angry tone, although otherwise she is generally polite and easygoing. Her demeanour changes noticeably when we have the pause conversations. I've tried to react neutrally to these shifting moods, but she spontaneously apologised for her behaviour and said she finds the tests too easy. Since she knows she's got 100% on everything thus far, I acknowledged that she's never had any difficulties with them.

After the first three tests were administered, we took a coffee break. The subject noted that I put the milk in my coffee first today. She said that since the beginning of the sessions I've always put the sugar in first. I admit I can't remember either way. Barry, if the cameras were left running please take a look and see if we can find any evidence.

Second half of the session: I brought Cassandra to the lounge so that we would be in a more informal environment, and explained to her that the rest of the day would be spent learning about her memory ability from a subjective point of view — that is, how she believes she is perceived, and what she believes are the differences between how she perceives the world around her and how other people do. She gave several examples of when she noticed that a shared experience changed for the people involved as it was discussed, whereas with her particular condition it does not. One typical statement, quoting from my notes: "Ironically, I get told I'm wrong a lot. But as you can see from the tests, I don't seem to forget anything. Sometimes I wish I could shift details the way that other people do." End of quote. Barry, the time for that was about 2:30, give or take five minutes. Please provide the exact quote from the audio in the notes. Thank you.

During the discussion I asked the subject to repeat for me what I had said to her when we were first introduced last week, and she recited what seemed to be a word-for-word repetition of my explanation. Barry, once again, please check the recordings and verify. There's a lot of verification work with this one. Remember it's the final session.

I introduced some deliberate variations on details as we reviewed the different tests and what had happened on each day, and the subject corrected me every time. Barry, I'll do the verifications on these because you already have a lot of recordings to get through and I was working from my notes. Please enter a comment that I ensured that at no time could the subject see my notes. The video record will be evidence of that.

Conclusions: If all of the verifications show a match, then the recommendation will be that the charge of perjury be withdrawn. If we do find any discrepancies, they may indicate the subject is either lying or has made a mistake, but in light of the formal test results we'll have to review our own notes very carefully to ensure we weren't the ones who made the mistake. Per standard procedures, please don't send anything to the prosecutor's office until I've had a chance to review all documentation.

Final notes: If, based on the evaluations, the recommendation is to withdraw the perjury charge, the subject will most likely be out of a job. Barry, please prepare a remuneration application and a letter of proposal for further research with Ms. — that's Ms., not Miss, she stated that explicitly on her release form — Webb. Examples of hyperthymestic syndrome are few and far between, and all indicators are that she has it.

End notes. If I remember anything else to be documented, I'll send a separate file. See you at the meeting.

#fridayflash: for your information

Ontario Ministry of Transportation

September 13, 2019

Version française suit ci-dessous

Mr. JOHN A. DOE:

Please find enclosed your Vehicle Licence Renewal labels. In accordance with the Highway Traffic Act, you are required to affix the plate renewal label to the rear licence plate on your vehicle, and the verification label to your vehicle ownership permit. Please see the diagrams on the reverse side of this letter for information on how to affix the labels correctly.

You are receiving these labels and this letter in accordance with the International Security Act. The provincial Ministry of Transportation, in compliance with Canadian federal regulations, has obtained proof from the National Security Agency of the United States of America that you have made no efforts to sell or otherwise relinquish ownership of your vehicle in the last three months. Therefore, since your licence plate renewal is due within the next six weeks, the Ministry has taken the following steps to ensure you remain in compliance:
  • your odometer readings have been obtained from the commercial garage which services your vehicle for oil changes and tune-ups;
  • your insurance information has been verified with your vehicle insurance provider;
  • your local police force have confirmed there are no outstanding infractions on your driving record;
  • the necessary licence renewal fees have been charged to your credit card.
Beyond affixing the labels as stated above, we require no further actions or information from you at this time.

If in fact you will cease to be the owner of this vehicle within the next six weeks, for any reason, you are required to return the renewal stickers to the Ministry, using the enclosed return envelope. Your renewal fee will be reimbursed, less reprocessing charges. Please fill out and return the reprocessing form included in the return envelope.

Please note that under the International Security Act you are hereby notified that any electronic transmissions regarding your vehicle, including, but not limited to, any telephone calls, SMS ("text") messages, e-mails, fax transmissions, or any documentation transmitted via the internet may be reviewed by the National Security Agency of the United States of America, and that per the articles of the Act copies will be sent to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. Information need not be directly addressed to the Ministry to be collected.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the Ministry using the information on our web site. The web site address is listed above the label diagrams on the reverse side of this letter.

Ontario's roads and highways — yours to discover

Note:

Check the "letter" date — yes this is fiction. But if even half of what's been leaked by Snowden is accurate, near as I can tell this fictional security legislation could pass into law tomorrow, and a respectable chunk of the infrastructure would already be in place. There would be a lot of legislation to pass, given that it would be a multilateral agreement, but technically it could be done — assuming internet infrastructure stays the same as it is now.

#fridayflash: opposable thumbs

"But they don't have the capacity," said Caitlin.

Peter shrugged and slid the device across the table to her. "Nevertheless, some of them have figured out how to do it. Read for yourself."

Caitlin picked up the device and read the first couple of paragraphs of text on the screen. She gave a short laugh and handed back the device to Peter. "It's an April Fool's joke," she said. "There's no way."

"I saw Spot do it," said Peter. "I left the device on my desk when I went to get another coffee, and when I came back she was entering the text you see here. She jumped off the desk when I returned to the room, but, and this is the key part, when I laughed and said I was all right with her using the device, she jumped up again and finished the paragraph. I extracted the video from the home security file. You can watch that if you don't believe me."

"Even if I do watch it, I still won't believe you," said Caitlin. "You're telling me your pet cat wrote that?"

"She did, and Farrah's cat Biggle has, and an orange tabby named Larry has written a beautiful essay on the merits of wet versus dry food. He comes out in favour of dry, even though he says wet tastes and feels better. I think most humans would have expected cats to all be in favour of wet food."

"You're yanking my chain."

"Farrah says that she's observed Biggle trying to teach her other cat, Triggle, how to use the device for writing. Biggle tapped the icon to open the text editor, then closed it and pushed the device at Triggle. Triggle opened a video instead, and Biggle batted at her and closed it, then demonstrated again. Farrah said it all looked very deliberate." Peter's device chimed, and he swiped a few commands into it. "Farrah has the lesson on video too, plus an extract from the device's log showing what commands were completed during that time period. She's going to synch it with the video."

"Is that the text you just got?" said Caitlin.

Peter shook his head and smiled. "No, that was a report of another cat who seems to have learned how. The owner calls the cat Squirrel because it has a grey bushy tail, but she says the cat only answers to 'Kitten', and sure enough that's how the cat identifies itself in the report it wrote."

Caitlin blinked. "What did it write a report on?"

"It's a description of inkjet printer behaviour if a cat places a paw on the moving paper at different stages in printing. Um, let's see, 'If the paper is at the top, the machine stops and blinks. If the paper is partly through the machine, the machine gets louder and the person will make the machine work over again. Kitten will be told to leave the room. If the paper is almost all the way at the bottom, no effect." Peter raised his eyebrows. "I think this one has a bright future in engineering."

Caitlin rolled her eyes, then frowned. "Wait... have any of them written anything that could be considered fiction. Or at least something fanciful?"

"Not so far. It's all essays on the merits of different food brands and how to sabotage printers. They're very focused on evaluating their environment." Peter's device chimed again. "I'm more interested in why it's starting to happen now," he said, swiping at his device. "Right now I'm exploring the idea that it's finally easy enough to write without opposable thumbs."

"They're doing it because they can."

"Basically. Hrm." Peter frowned at the device.

"Another one?" said Caitlin.

"Here's some of that fiction you were wondering about," said Peter. "Written by a cat named Allroy. These names. I'm starting to feel bad about what I called Spot."

"What's fictional about the new one?"

"Allroy was born in a bachelor apartment, the only surviving kitten of a small litter. She's always lived in apartments, only goes outside in a carrier during trips to the vet. But she's written this story about hunting birds and climbing trees. Two things she's never done in real life." Peter swiped at his device. "The beginning's pretty good, actually. I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing."

Caitlin laughed. "All this cat stuff. Okay, assuming you're not making this all up, which I'm still not convinced of, I guess it's safe to say we won't be seeing the cat version of War and Peace any time soon."

"You realise that's what people used to say about 'women's fiction' and fiction by people not of European descent."

"Yeah, but, these are cats."

Peter grinned. "Twenty years from now, humans will be bitching about cat quotas in the Hugo nominations. Wait for it."

#fridayflash: roy g. biv

Red was the lumberjack shirt Roy was wearing over his favourite Supertramp t-shirt that night. Red was the STP logo on his baseball cap. Not that anyone saw him as he drove over the gravel side roads home, rolling up each hill and down into each valley as fast as he could go without spattering pebbles into his windshield.

Orange was the colour of Roy's pickup truck. Burnt orange, he insisted. His friends didn't care. They teased him about whether or not the paint glowed in the dark, or whether they could just shoot deer out of his truck during the season instead of having to don an orange coat. Roy liked his pickup. It wasn't the biggest, or the most powerful, or — all right, so it wasn't the best colour — but it let him get his work done, and it didn't need much maintenance.

Yellow was the light thrown off by the pickup's headlights. The light bleached out the warm brown of the dirt and the pale grey of the limestone gravel, making the road look almost white. The dead grass and bullrushes growing in the ditches looked white too. If he hadn't known there were healthy fields of corn just beyond the bordering trees, Roy would have been creeped out. He crested the next hill, which was little on the way up, but long and steep on the other side. A glance at his dashboard clock told him it was just after one in the morning. Roy knew the road well, and let the truck go a little faster than was safe so he could coast down the long slope. That's why the truck skidded so badly when he slammed on the brakes to avoid the man standing at the bottom of the hill.

Green was the man's skin, at least the parts not covered by his silver jumpsuit. His bald head was encased in a glass bubble, just like in the old films CHCH Channel 11 showed on Saturday afternoons. He didn't move as Roy screeched the truck to a halt, and didn't seem bothered by the glare of the headlights. The pickup came to a stop about three metres from where he stood. Roy insisted later the glare from the headlights hitting the glass head-bubble should have blinded him, but he also reported that the man didn't seem affected by any glare. He just peered over the hood of the truck, nodded as he stared straight at Roy, then raised his left arm and shook it. A signal.

Blue was the flash of light Roy spotted coming from his left side. Later he said that whoever or whatever caused the light to flash must have been in the ditch, directly parallel with the driver's-side door of the pickup truck.

Indigo was the colour of the next thing Roy remembered seeing — his jeans, wadded up and being used as a pillow for his head. He discovered he was lying on the road in front of his truck. He still had his underwear on, but, as he put it later, it "wasn't arranged right." His socks and shoes were arranged neatly on the pickup's hood. The truck still had its lights on, but the engine was shut off. There was no sign of the green man.

Violet was the colour of the eastern sky as Roy picked himself up and checked for any signs of the green man and his blue-light-flashing assistant. After Roy got fully dressed and got back into his truck — which still had enough battery power left to start, barely — the clock said it was five-thirty. Roy's wristwatch only said it was about five past one, though. He drove home, thought about calling the police to report what happened, then thought the better of it.

One other thing he did notice, though. After he crested the next hill, he reached the highest patch of land between home and where he had stopped for the green man. And out in the distance, near the escarpment, there was a clearly visible, fully-formed double rainbow. But, Roy pointed out, the area was dry. No rain for a week.

#fridayflash: family heritage

"Mum, you sit down. Jimmy and I can do the dishes."

"I'm fine. You go sit down. Talk to your father."

Roger knew that as soon as the water started running in the kitchen, their father would tell them they should help their mother, that real men didn't expect their mother to pick up after them. Roger would protest, and Jimmy would point out that when the parents came to visit one of the sons, their mother insisted on doing the dishes then too. The argument itself was a tradition, like watching the Stanley Cup game together when the truth was none of them really followed hockey.

Anne checked the water temperature with her hand, then very gently lowered the first stack of dishes into the sink. She pulled the knitted dishcloth off the faucet and lifted the first plate from the water.

A white plate with pink roses, it was the only survivor of the set Great-Grandmother Bridget had brought with her to Canada in 1920. Anne rinsed it off and set it gently in the dish rack.

Bridget had always hated that dish set, a wedding gift bought by relatives without asking her preferences. It came to symbolise all the choices taken away from her. Her in-laws had that ugly, tiny house waiting when she arrived. Her dreams of going to university were destroyed when she discovered she was pregnant with Anne's grandmother. She took great pleasure in pitching as many of those dishes at her husband's head as she could find excuses to throw them.

Green Roman key pattern around the edge of a salad bowl Anne's grandmother, Vera, had received as a twentieth anniversary gift. Anne set it on its own tea towel after washing it, since its shape didn't allow it to sit well in the dish rack.

Vera had loved flowers and blue-and-white china patterns. The salad bowl was a gift from a thoughtless friend she had a falling-out with a year later. Her husband remained friends with the woman's husband, so she could never throw out the gift, never stop inviting her over for bridge on Saturday evenings. She gave the bowl to Anne as a starting-a-home present.

Handpainted sunflower motif on a serving plate Anne's mother Marilyn had made sometime in the 1960s. The centre of the sunflower was textured to imitate the heavy rounds of seeds in a real plant, and Anne gave that part a good scrub to make sure all the pâté bits were removed from the dimples. She set it in the rack in front of Bridget's roses plate.

Marilyn only took the one ceramics class, a lark to do with her friends that didn't work out when she discovered they all enjoyed it much more than she did. She stuck with it to the end for the social aspects, but the serving plate was the only useful thing she ever made.

The rest of the dishes were in a pink-and-red rose pattern Anne had picked for her own bridal registry. She'd tried to match Bridget's surviving plate as much as possible, over the objections of her husband, who had wanted something with blue or gold in it. It hadn't been a fight exactly, because he'd dropped the issue immediately.

He'd said that if she did the cooking, he should do the washing up. It was only fair, he said. But she didn't trust him after they disagreed on the china pattern. Grandma Vera always said her father was the reason only one of Bridget's plates survived, and Anne had never understood what that meant until John said he wanted to do the washing up. Of course John was careful, but still. But still.

"Mum, we've been sitting around the TV for half an hour. Are you sure you don't want a hand?"

"Just finishing up, Jimmy." She set the last side plate in the rack and rinsed out the sink. "I know they're just things, but so much history gets wrapped up in things. It's heritage, know what I mean?"

How can I when you won't let Rodge or I do anything but eat off them, thought Jim, but he nodded and smiled and handed his mother a fresh tea towel. 

#fridayflash: post-op

This is a sequel to the story from two weeks ago.

The way the hospital was designed, it was difficult and confusing for patients to find the waiting room again after a procedure. No-one in staff uniforms seemed inclined to help him, so Dan followed the signs as best he could. After what felt like at least three too many left turns he found the room where Nora said she would wait for him.

He found Nora slumped on a hard plastic chair, holding a paper cup of what was probably waiting-room coffee. She was so locked away in her thoughts that he had to call her name four times before she looked up. She brightened, but it was the brightness of sunlight hitting a glass wind chime.

"I'm declared healthy," he said. "They did find something, but they did a procedure right away and I'm all right now."

"Procedure? What procedure?"

He held out his hand. "Want to get breakfast?"

She shrugged and stood up. "If you think you're up to it."

"I'm starving. Let's go."

They walked out of the hospital. Nora led him down the street where they had spotted a promising-looking diner earlier.

"I parked the truck in front of it. They had a few spots behind the hospital, but it was so abandoned-feeling, and the chargers didn't work anymore. It didn't feel safe." She paused. "They have a sign saying the chargers are part of the 'authentic nostalgia'. But they still work."

"Of course," said Dan. "They wouldn't be authentic otherwise."

Nora laughed with a sincerity that pleased him.

The diner did evoke a kind of authentic nostalgia as they walked in and found an empty booth. The seats were upholstered in something much like the vinyl Dan remembered from his childhood. The menus displayed on the table's surface took the gloss of the touch screen into account, the better to emulate the plastic-laminated paper of old.

Dan immediately tapped an order for the special, adding a bottle of water as an afterthought. Nora flipped through the whole menu and then wound up ordering the special anyhow.

"Do you think these are real vinyl?" said Nora, rubbing the seat cushion.

"My guess is vat-grown leather. They can get it awfully close to plastic these days." Dan stared out window at their truck, as if he expected it to drive away on its own.

"So you had a procedure," Nora prompted.

Dan's gaze shifted towards where the hospital stood. "Dr. Zavic was right. But," he added, wagging a finger at Nora's stricken face, "the procedure got rid of it."

"Rid of it," Nora said.

"Yeah. I had cancer this morning, and now I don't."

"Just like that? What about follow-up visits?"

"They said I had to drink lots of water for a week and follow this healthy living plan they were going to e-mail me..." Dan fished his device out of his coat pocket and glanced at it. "I got something... yeah, that's it. If you don't mind driving back, I can read it in the truck maybe."

"I don't mind." Dan glanced up as he tucked his device away again. Nora still looked troubled. "What did they do? You were away for less than an hour."

The server — an authentic human being, not the robots like most diners had — arrived with their coffees and Dan's water. "They teleport you. First she scanned me as if she was going to teleport me, but didn't. That let them look for the cancer. Then they teleport you for real, but they just put you back in the same place, minus the cancer part."

"Right, my brother had his appendix out that way two years ago," the server said, setting the drinks on the table. "That's still a pretty new use of the technology."

"But you must have an incision or, or something?" said Nora.

"No. I can kind of feel something's different, but that's it."

"It's really cool," said the server. "My brother's appendix burst on the way to the operating room, and they were still able to fix him up without cutting him open. By the way, is that your truck outside?"

Nora confirmed it was.

"Thought I saw you parking it earlier," the server said to Nora. "You two didn't want to teleport to the hospital?"

Dan shrugged. "Nearest 'port is almost all the way here. By the time we reached it, it made more sense to just keep driving."

"You're farmers?"

"Sixth generation. We were independent, then we worked for Agrisanto. Now they're tanked we own the land and we're independent again."

"I guess that's why you need a truck." A chime sounded from the kitchen area. "That'll be your meals. I'll be right back."

"You'd think these townies had never seen a truck before," said Dan.

"I haven't seen any except for ours," said Nora. "Some bicycles, but no trucks or cars. I guess they're weird now."

Dan grimaced and added milk to his coffee. He stirred the milk in slowly, concentrating on the task.

"You're not telling me something," said Nora. "Did they find something else in the scan?"

"What?" said Dan. "Oh, no, nothing like that." He set the spoon down with exaggerated care on the saucer. "I was just thinking... they can convert a human being to data and then convert them back again, minus whatever they don't want. What can they do with other stuff?"

"Like what?"

"Anything. Remember those spaceships in those old films my grandfather liked? Space Trek or something?"

"Star Trek, wasn't it?"

"Maybe. But their food just came out of those little oven things..."

"Here you go. Two specials." The server set their plates in front of them. "Condiments on the side there. Enjoy. Let me know if you need anything else." The server gave a professional smile and returned to the kitchen.

"Looks good." Nora picked up her fork and glanced at Dan's plate. Then she frowned and set the fork down again.

"What's wrong?"

"Look..." Nora turned her plate so the food was oriented the same way as Dan's.

The food on the two plates was identical in every way.

#fridayflash: goldfincher

The windows of the B&B Enterprises office tower ran the full height of every floor, and, like all office tower windows these days, they were mirrored on the outside so as to be tinted on the inside. On a bright day with not too many clouds in the sky, the windows could be counted on to confuse at least two or three birds.

Gordon only flinched a little, then, when a bird flew into his cubicle window and bounced off with a very solid thunk sound. He finished formatting the columns in the profit-and-loss summary he was working on before he glanced out the window to check on the bird's status. If it was lying dead or injured on the ledge, he'd have to call Real Estate Services to get someone in a window-washer's bucket to sweep it off. Company policy was that any animals found dead or injured on or in the building were to be reported immediately so they could be cleaned up. This policy had come into effect after the incident in the fifth-floor men's room between Director Fraser and the sewer rat.

Gordon startled when he saw that the bird was neither dead nor injured. The bird seemed to be in rude good health for a small creature that had just collided with the side of an office building. The feathers on its yellow body and black-barred wings were all in place, and it looked through the window with a thoughtful expression in its obsidian eyes. Gordon felt like it was inspecting him as its little yellow head twitched from side to side, observing him from all angles.

"Can it see us?" he said to no-one in particular.

"Can what see us?" said Angela, his nearest cubicle-neighbour. She popped her head up over the divider to see what Gordon was doing and spotted the bird. "Awwww!"

"Don't move around too much. I don't want to scare it," said Gordon.

"Get your cell phone! Take a picture! Or wait, I'll get mine." Angela dropped back into the depths of her cubicle. Gordon slowly took his phone off his work table and got it into position, but the bird left before he could key the lock combination and turn on the camera.

The bird came around the same time the next day, and the day after that. Co-workers  made a point of dropping by Gordon's desk around when the bird was meant to show up, cell phones at the ready. The bird got caught on camera a few times, but the shots were all dim and blurry.

Director Fraser teased Gordon about his new "assistant". Fred from Accounts Payable declared the bird was an escaped canary, and that it would surely die once winter came. Stan from IT said it was a goldfinch, and not a domestic bird at all.

"How would you know?" said Fred.

"I go birdwatching on the weekends," said Stan. "My parents got me into it when I was a little kid. It's their favourite hobby."

"I guess that's why you have an opinion about it," said Fred. "But I think it's a canary. But, you know," he added when Stan opened his mouth to protest, "we're all entitled to our own opinions. It's just a bird. It doesn't matter."

Stan left, muttering something under his breath about goldfinches.

The bird appeared on the window ledge outside of Gordon's cubicle every day for two weeks. On that last Friday, it alighted just as Gordon was e-mailing his profit-and-loss report. He hit "send" and turned to say hello to the bird. The bird looked him side-to-side one last time, then flew away.

"That was a short visit," Angela said from the other side of the cubicle divider.

"I still can't decide if he can see inside or not," said Gordon. "Maybe the cloud patterns are a little different today. Might be throwing off his game."

"It's still a beautiful day," said Angela.

"It is," said Gordon. "Do you want to hit a patio after work? Quick dinner and a beer?"

Angela thought that was a great idea.

The bird flew over the vacant lot next door to the office tower, over the ravine with the underpass to the shopping mall, over the professional services development centre. It shifted course to fly over a set of identical white-sided townhouses, and flew into an open second-storey window in one of them. Once inside, it alighted on a computer workstation desk and walked across it to a small metal plate. The bird froze the moment both feet were on the plate. Somewhere downstairs a bell chimed.

There was the sound of a heavy tread on the stairs, and then a man entered the workroom. "Welcome home," he said to the bird, giving the top of its head a light pat. He pushed on the bird's black-feathered forehead, which made the lower jaw drop open. Where the bird's tongue should have been was a micro USB port.

The man plugged the loose end of a USB cable into the port in the bird's mouth, then turned his attention to the computer monitor. Images of Gordon's cubicle appeared. Most of the images were too grey to register much, but his computer screen was bright and sharp.

The man zoomed in on one image. "Interesting," he said.

A few images later he began to laugh.

#fridayflash: edited

"You can just leave your clothes in this bin, Dan. Once you have the examination gown on, you want to go through the door with the green light over it." The nurse pointed with one hand while holding out the hospital gown with the other.

"What's this thing made of?" Dan said, taking the examination gown and rubbing his thumb callouses over the material.

"Cotton-rich paper. It's disposable."

Dan grunted. "I suppose they get ground up and composted."

"Something like that." The nurse went through a door with a red light over it.

"Asshole," said Dan under his breath while he unbuttoned his shirt.

Dan finished undressing and pulled the hospital gown over his head. He was relieved to discover it was closed at the back, just shaped like a giant t-shirt. He folded his clothes, put them in the bin like the nurse had said, and went through the green-lit door.

The room beyond was larger than he expected, and mostly empty. In the centre was a black rectangle of some rubbery stuff with plexiglass walls around it on three sides. Beyond that was a table supporting an array of display monitors and other electronics. A young woman sat on the far side of the machines. She barely glanced up at the sound of the door swinging shut behind Dan.

"Mr. Hodge?" she said.

"Yes ma'am. And you are...?"

"I'm the diagnostician. You can call me Sherry." She waved her arm towards the rubber flooring.

"What do you need me to do?" said Dan.

"Step into the 'porter so I can complete the scan," said Sherry.

"Por... is that thing a teleporter?"

Sherry looked at Dan directly for the first time. "Of course it is. But a medical one."

"Where are you sending me?"

"You're not leaving this room until the examination is completed. Now please, step on. I have a lot of appointments to complete today."

Dan set his feet shoulders-width apart and folded his arms. It was a stance, he thought ruefully, that was a lot more effective when he was in his work gear and telling off seasonal workers than when he was wearing a paper gown trying to deal with a medical... android. Whatever she was. He made sure he was scowling.

"Lady," he said, "I'm not stepping anywhere until you explain to me what the hell you're going to do with this carcass of mine."

Sherry blinked rapidly several times. "I am going to scan you, but not dematerialise you. Medical 'porters aren't hooked up to any network. Once your data is scanned, the system will analyse it and report any anomalies."

"And then?"

"I'll verify the system's diagnosis and discuss any necessary treatment with you."

"Well, that last part sounds like it will be lots of fun." Dan stepped into the teleporter. "Will any of this hurt?"

"No, it's just a scan. It will feel like you're being teleported, but you won't go anywhere."

"Never been teleported."

"What?" Sherry gawped at him. "How did you get here?"

"Same way I get anywhere — my '63 Ford F-150 Solar. My wife's trying to find a place to park it right now."

"I think there's still some parking in the back..."

"We figured. We're farmers. We're used to having to find somewhere to park."

"Try to hold still. I'm going to scan you now."

Dan saw a flash of white light. Sherry gave quick little taps to the different keyboards arrayed in front of her.

"How long before the scanning starts?"

"Already happened. Just stay where you are, Mr. Hodge... " She pushed a button on one of the control panels. "Have you been urinating blood at all, Mr. Hodge?"

"That's exactly what I've been doing. That's why I went and saw my doctor."

"You have bladder cancer. It hasn't metastasised yet — if it had, there'd be more alarm indicators on the scan."

"Cancer?" Dan felt his knees go weak.

"Why don't you sit on the gurney over there, Mr. Hodge." Sherry pointed to the wall adjacent to the change room.

Dan stumbled to the gurney and sat down. "Cancer," he repeated.

"Yes. The markers are quite definite." Sherry tapped a few more commands into one of the keyboards. "With your permission, I'll edit it out before you leave today."

"Wha?"

Sherry took a deep breath. "You lie down on the gurney, and I wheel you back onto the 'porter. This time we do dematerialise you, but when we rematerialise you half a second later, we don't include any of the cancerous or precancerous cells. It'll feel just like the scan, but you might experience some déjà vu. Are you comfortable with that?"

Dan shook his head. "But how do we treat the cancer?"

"I just told you, Mr. Hodge. The editing procedure removes it."

"What if you take out something you're not supposed to?"

"The system only edits out cells with the DNA markers for cancer. Also, we do another scan immediately after the procedure to verify the data and confirm there are no other health issues. Lie down on the gurney please."

Dan hesitated, then stretched out on the gurney. Sherry strode over, took the brake off the gurney wheels, and pushed the gurney into the teleporter. She checked the gurney's positioning and applied the brake. "Just lie still," she said.

Dan heard her walk back to the control table. He wanted to ask her about the other risks in treatment, but before he could he saw one flash, then another.

"Verifying," said Sherry. Dan concentrated on his bladder. Something felt odd, but nothing hurt.

"Successful. No perforations. Get up when you're ready, Mr. Hodge, and try to drink lots of water for the next week or so. As much water as you can stand."

Dan eased himself into a sitting position slowly. "How do I make sure this doesn't come back again? The cancer."

"The hospital will e-mail you a healthy living guide. You can return through the door you came in, Mr. Hodge. If you don't mind, I'm running late and need to attend to my next patient."

#fridayflash: float on

What everyone forgot was that the city was built on water in the first place. The entire downtown used to be a river delta criss-crossed by creeks and rivers. After the epidemics of the mid-nineteenth century, the waterways were forced underground and integrated with the brand-new municipal sewer system.

Some of the rivers were already underground. They just discovered a new one about ten years ago, a leftover glacier channel created during the last Ice Age. The water is very cold, very clean, and very old. It flows about ten metres underground, through a layer of gravel deposited ten thousand years ago. The rate of flow is about a metre per year.

Two days ago there was what they're calling a "fifty-year flood." More water fell in six hours than the city normally gets in four weeks this time of year, and there was severe enough flooding to close every major highway and thoroughfare, for the very straightforward reason that they were all underwater. Basements were drowned; King Street was navigated by kayak.



Fifty-year flood is a nice, romantic way of putting it, but everyone forgets. Ten years ago there was a rainstorm so sudden and intense the water fell in ropes, and a three-metre sinkhole opened right in the middle of Eglinton Avenue. That's eight kilometres from the lake on supposedly high ground, in a relatively new part of town. In fact, the older neighbourhoods and buildings tended to do a little better, because they were built in eras when developers weren't so cocksure they could out-engineer nature.

In the west end, at the line where the city proper ends and the inner suburbs begin, a man went to parallel park his car on the street yesterday. He owns an underground parking spot in a nearby condominium highrise, but of course he couldn't use it because the parking garage was flooded. He was the first one to report the curb and sidewalk had shifted about twenty centimetres to the south.

At first it looked like there had been small earthquake as well as a flood, but as city inspectors traced the fault line, they realised what was happening. The water underground isn't just rising. It's lifting. It's rotating.

The entire city sits on a bed of water, and has become a floating island.

The engineers tell us that the displacement must be immense, and that the shifting will be minimal. Eventually, they say, the water will drain into the lake and the city will settle again. Buildings near the island's edge may experience some structural damage in the foundations, but overall it won't be anything major.

But everyone forgets. That's what they always say.

#fridayflash: the gardener

No warning, just as bloody usual. That simpering boy the Baron calls his valet is so used to waking me in the middle of the night, he even knows when and where to jump back when my stiletto hand thrashes out.

"Same as before," he says, skipping the more flowery message the Baron gave him to repeat. He stopped that after I threw him to the ground and threatened to shove the stiletto up his nose for wasting my time.

I pull my tool bag out from under the cot. "Clean or dirty?"

"The Baron said clean if you can manage it. He said there will be a state funeral."

My room's as dark as the inside of a dead cow, but lighting a lamp would waste time and draw attention. I retrieve two vials of poison from the sack by feel, and tuck the stiletto into a sleeve.

"Tell me," I say, reaching for my boots.

"Two," says the boy. "A nobleman and his mistress, already asleep. I'll lead you there."

"You always do," I say. "Let's get it over with. The beans need staking up tomorrow."

We leave my room at the back of the garden-shed and walk with light feet on the flagstone path. It's too overcast for the moon or the stars to show the way. Something squishes under the toe of my boot, so now I know I have slugs to deal with on top of everything else.

The boy leads me to one of the guest houses that lay hidden in the forest beside the castle grounds. They're supposed to be secluded, but the dozens of servants who work for the Baron all know where they are.

The door from the great stone patio to the dining-hall has been left unlocked; we slip in, and almost wake the entire household when the boy trips on the rug. I yank him back by his collar to keep him upright, and we creep up the stairs.

The second-floor corridor has a torch lit in a wall-sconce, so at least we can see our way. The master bedroom is at the end of the hall.

The open doorway lets me see a man — my main target — asleep on his side, facing the door. His body blocks the view of the mistress, but all is quiet, so I figure I'll risk it. I nod at the boy to watch the door and tiptoe in.

The first part of the job is simple enough. Since the nobleman is on his side, I unstopper the appropriate vial and carefully pour the contents down his ear. Then I hold his nose and mouth closed in case he wakes up and tries to complain about the concoction eating out his head. He spasms a little but dies before he wakes up fully. I can smell he pissed himself on the way out, but that doesn't count against a "clean" job. The Baron just wants something that will be pretty for the state funeral. A body that needs washing fits the bill.

The mistress stirs beside the corpse, so I hurry to the other side of the bed. She's lying on her back, and I get the feeling she'll wake up at any moment, so I press her forehead down firmly with one hand and shove the stiletto up one of her nostrils with the other. She gasps awake as the steel touches her upper lip, but it's piercing her brain before she can cry out.

There. Done right quick and both clean. I wipe the stiletto off on the bedsheets and return to the doorway. The boy glances a question to me and I nod back an answer.

I know he hates this part. He has to confirm they're both dead. I've never messed  up that part of a job, but supposedly it was a problem with the last unlucky wretch who held the post.

The boy returns, and even in the torchlight he looks a bit green. He just never learns to have a stomach for the checking. I shrug, he looks like he's going to say something, but in the end he just starts down the hall, which means I'm free to follow him.

Just before we get back to my room the clouds part, and the moon comes out. We hurry into the shadows and my room.

"He said to give you this," says the boy, pulling a small leather bag from his satchel. It will have the usual number of coins in it. "This too," he adds, and hands me a small wineskin. I open it. It doesn't have wine, just flat ale.

"Good," I say, "I'll feed this to the slugs. They love beer so much they're willing to drown in it. At least they die happy and leave my raspberry bushes alone."

"How did you wind up killing people at night if you're the gardener?" the boy says. The way it pours out of him, it sounds like he's been waiting a long time to ask.

I shrug and sniff at the aroma of ale coming out of the wineskin before replacing the stopper. "The Baron saw me wring the neck on a chicken one day and asked if I could do the same to a man. You know the Baron. He doesn't like it when he asks a question and the answer is 'no'."

"But you're a gardener. You make life."

I snort. "When I was your age, I let a cucumber rot where it grew. And you know what happened? All these little cucumber seedlings came up, too many for them all to live. They crowded each other to death. But if I'd picked that cucumber like I should have, someone would have eaten it. No new cucumber plants from eating. I make life, but I make death too. That's what gardening is."

I pull my boots off and lie back on my cot. "Be off now. I told you I have to stake up those beans tomorrow morning, and the Baron will be wanting to be dressed sooner than you might be ready for."

The boy looks like he wants to say something else, but he leaves anyhow.

I think about drinking the ale to put me to sleep, but something smelled off about it. I tuck my stiletto in its usual sleeve, and fall asleep dreaming of a slug-free broccoli patch.

#fridayflash: conspiracy

I read the Guardian about every other day, usually, but somehow missed this article where Neil Gaiman gave a writing prompt and invited people to finish the story. Sarah Snell-Pym used it as a prompt over at Magenta Monster on 21 June, which is how I found out about it, and I decided to give it a go.

It wasn't just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.

He hadn't had much sleep — the phone had been ringing, intermittently, all night. He couldn't turn it off because he was on-call IT support for work. None of them were work calls, though.

For the first several calls he listened for a few seconds, said "Hello?" one more time, then disconnected. Around two o'clock in the morning he gave up. When the phone rang and he saw it wasn't the work contact, he said "Fuck off. You pervert." at the handset as soon as he hit the talk button. He was too tired to snarl, and just said the words as if he were reporting on a crashed server's status.

Someone at the other end gasped. "Is that how you talk to your girlfriend's mother?"

"Wha?" he said. "I don't have a girlfriend."

"You listen to me, young man! Put Vera on the phone right now!"

"Who the hell is Vera?"

"WHAT?!?"

"Look lady, I have to be at work for eight-thirty tomorrow, and I've had no sleep because of some prank caller. I don't know any Veras. I'm sorry."

"You aren't Brad?"

Despite his tiredness he wanted to laugh. "No, I'm not."

"I'm so sorry, sir, I must have mis-dialed..."

"I have to keep this line open in case work calls. You understand. Good-bye."

"Good-bye. Terribly sorry."

He leaned back into the pillows, amazed how often people simply forgot about call waiting features.

Five minutes later the heavy breather called back. He thought it was Vera's mother dialling the wrong number again and missed his chance to use the "Fuck off. You pervert." line.

He woke up not to the sound of the alarm, but his cat retching up a hairball. He groaned, and noticed that the sunlight filtering through the curtains seemed a bit too intense for seven-thirty. He checked the time on his phone and swore.

His foot found the cat's hairball on the bathroom tiles as he came out of the shower. He stuck his foot back in the bath-tub and wiped it off, then hurried off to work.

His manager met him in the elevator, and cheerfully asked if he'd got carried away and had too much to drink after watching the big game the night before. He said he hadn't watched the game and had tried to explain about the calls, but his manager just said, "Too bad you missed it — we slaughtered them" and exited at the next floor.

He recalled as the elevator doors closed that his manager was a big sports fan.

During the day two servers went down, and the fail-over to the backup servers didn't work properly. He had to go in and change a lot of settings that should have been set already. In between fixing the servers he tried to figure out how the settings could have changed. His manager dropped by just long enough to tell him that he wanted an analysis done and delivered for tomorrow morning. "You know, for our office start time. Eight-thirty," his manager added as he walked away.

The servers were finally stable and he had all the log files he'd need collected about an hour after everyone else had gone home. He considered staying at work until the job was done, but he was so tired he could barely see straight. He knew he'd have to crash for a few hours and then work on the report overnight.

He bought a pizza slice to eat on the walk home and found a dead housefly under a slice of pepperoni. When he brought it back to the pizza stand and demanded his money back, the stout Italian woman running the counter told him he put the housefly on the slice himself to get her in trouble with the health inspectors.
"Health inspectors," he said, tossing the rest of the slice in the trash. "That's a good idea. I'll call them when I get home."

"You just threw out the evidence, asshole," said the pizza lady.

He tried to act like it didn't matter, but he knew from the look on her face she was right.

The lock on his apartment door felt funny when he turned the key in it. The resistance was off, as if it wasn't locked.

He swore under his breath, trying to remember if he'd locked up that morning.

He set his laptop bag on the floor and decided to use the toilet before trying to get a few hours' sleep in. That reminded him that he still had the hairball to clean up. He groaned and grabbed the cleaning supplies.

The hairball wasn't on the bathroom floor. He noticed that a drop of toothpaste he'd meant to clean up at the same time wasn't there either.

"Mitsou?" he called to the cat. "Did you finally decide to start pulling your own weight around here?"

He put the cleaning supplies away, chuckling about the chores he would like to delegate to the cat. He had just shut the cupboard door when he realised he hadn't seen her since he got home. Normally she came to the door to greet him.

"Mitsou?" he called.

The last thing he felt was his face smashing into the exposed brick wall above the cleaning cupboard.

"We'll be able to stay here tonight for sure. Maybe even a couple of days." Brad looked around. "It's a nice place. He must have been doing all right."

"We'll get caught," said Vera.

"No security cameras in the fire escape stairwells," said Brad. He nudged the man's corpse with his toe. "He doesn't look like he'd be too heavy. Let's get him to the bath tub so we can start chopping him up for the garburator."

It was true, he thought — you did float over your body after. He watched Brad and Vera pick up his body and drag it to the bathroom.

"It would be a lot easier if you took my shoes off first," he said, but of course they couldn't hear him. Mitsou crept out from behind the armchair in the living room. Somehow that made him feel better.