#fridayflash: shimmer

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

"They all sound like sex toys."

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

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

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

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

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

"Thanks."

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

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

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

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

"Sorry?"

"Your moniker. Like, how about Shimmer?"

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

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

Estressa pressed against the wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like unplug it?"

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

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

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

She sighed. The name was going to stick.

the universe talks back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank You so much for this beautiful day.

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

But hey, enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Mother, we beseech you, we pray that —

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

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

Better from a distance.

Better.

audio(book)

Have you ever read audio(book)? It's okay if you haven't. It just means you weren't an MFA student when the book surfaced, briefly, before disappearing from the web.

Having said that, if you've been out clubbing any time in the last five years, you've probably danced to it. Let me explain.

audio(book) was one of those, um, works that didn't have enough fiction in it to be fiction, but didn't have enough of a grasp on reality to be non-fiction. Basically it's a weirded-up analysis of the SGML documentation standard, and about as interesting as that sounds. The first section starts off as a direct plagiarism of a SGML training document from about fifteen years ago, before morphing into a sort of writing exercise, where the narrative spins off every time it hits a word that can be twisted into a pun. Example: the "M" in SGML, "markup", got broken into "mark up", which led to the word "bruise", which led to a rather uptight, distanced attempt at describing rough sex. Not surprisingly, the author had a field day with that final "L", "language". After quoting from Knuth to Derrida, with a quick dash of James Joyce, the section devolved into a mass of angle-bracketed structure tags, with no content in them except for formatting tags.

The second section runs through all the Burroughesque tropes about language being a virus, about humans being symbol manipulation soft machines, about everything meaning nothing and everything at once. The typography and layout gets really creative in this part, or it will if you tell your e-reader to use the embedded fonts. You also need to use the same e-reader the author had — which, surprise, is an obscure model created by a lone inventor's Kickstarter campaign, and which made its funding goal but never caught on with the general market.

The third and final section is an essay, claiming that all data is equal, and that how humans consume it, text or images or sound, doesn't matter. The experience will change with the medium, but the original data is irrelevant. Borges' famous story about the library gets name-checked, but not quoted. There's a lot of suspicious hand-waving about McLuhan — suspicious because all the references come from one source, and only the first fifteen pages of that source. And then yeah, there's some more Derrida, and some hat-tips to Baudrillard's Simulations, which call into question whether the author of audio(book) actually knows what a third-level simulation is.

The essay is short, but it's padded out by about 15,000 words of footnotes, all of which are lengthy quotes from the authors I've already mentioned. Oh, and one lonely Virginia Woolf quote, from The Second Common Reader.

The whole thing got converted to EPUB, and thrown onto a couple of university servers in a quasi-clandestine way. Which is to say, they were in public web server directories, but no-one seems to have bothered making links to them for the longest time. There's an eighteen-month gap between the date/time stamp on the EPUBs and the folders they're in, and the first known link, on a class discussion board at one of the universities.

The original cover image, by the way, is not just a mess of random black-and-white noise patterns, but the text of the book itself with a BMP header string tossed onto the start.

Meanwhile, a WAV file of the EPUB was created by renaming the file extension and adding a WAV header onto the front of the file. The conversion was very brute-force — if you look at the WAV file in a plain-text editor, you'll see that most of the original text and formatting is intact, just with minor alterations for when the audio players froze on the data. The WAV was mixed with some house beats, converted to MP3, and the resulting abomination was uploaded to several music sites. Because it was posted for low/no price and tagged as dance music, it caught the eye of a few club DJs. It became an unlikely hit when they tried using it to clear the floor at the end of the night, and discovered (to their horror, no doubt), that the dancing masses liked it.

And that's all there was, and all there is, to it. If you ever happen to meet any earnest grad student who thinks they've found the work for their thesis, and it turns out to be audio(book), send them my way. I'll try to straighten them out before they do anything stupid — like actually propose it to their thesis supervisor.

Right, the last bit. I should explain how I wound up with this particular albatross around my neck. No, I am not the author of audio(book). I did, however, get pressured into formatting the thing, in all three versions: EPUB, BMP, WAV/MP3. The cymbal pattern on the sound file is my only creative contribution. Otherwise, it was just hours upon hellishly tedious hours of tagging, regular expressions, and saving as. Okay, and I was the one who knew the university sysadmins and asked them for a few megabytes of space. Why? Because at the time, it was easier than not doing it. You have no idea.

The one thing I am proud of is the metadata. The author let it slip that they had no intention of honouring the agreement we'd made regarding payment for my services rendered. That's why audio(book) lacks any kind of byline, not in the text, nor the front matter, nor the cover, nor the meta-data. The image and the audio files are similarly attribution-free. At the time, I had a story ready about the myth of the author, but it never actually came up. I think they liked the aesthetics of the user side and never bothered to check the metadata.

I used my own hardware, so if you look really hard you'll find my name, but I made it so you did have to look really hard. A couple of times a year some hardcore nerd finds me and either writes me a fan note or threatens to expose me (or, more often, both at the same time), and I write a nice, sweet e-mail back explaining that they're wrong. And I can prove they're wrong, thanks to some e-mails I have squirrelled away, but I try not to publicise those. 

The actual author... let's just say we don't talk anymore. I know they badmouth me in private, but they don't do it in public because they can't prove they're the actual author of the files.

So there it is. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some linear narrative fiction I'd like to read.

Between illness and editing my novel, I haven't been writing any #fridayflash, but this one slipped out. Thanks to S.A. Barton for the inspiration!

#fridayflash: customer experience

“I need to talk to a human,” Stiltskind demanded.

“Sir, prejudice against non-Earth androids is prohibited from public discourse under rule 239-B7. If you will not refrain from your prejudicial remarks, I shall be forced to call security.”

Stiltskind took a deep breath and loudly exhaled it as he walked away from the help kiosk. Two metres away, the nausea hit him again. He fell, rather than sat, on the nearest bench.

He put his head between his knees and sucked in more air. Things seemed a little better at knee level. It let him clear his head and think of how to try again.

The kiosk AI were programmed to placate irate customers, but not rude ones. Their encounter memory span was… Stiltskind blinked away the excess moisture from his eyes and concentrated on not scratching the backs of his hands. That would make the blisters worse.

Their encounter memory span was eight minutes. Right. He used to repair the damn things. It should be easier for him to remember. He closed his eyes and straightened up slowly. Circumstances could really mess with your head.

He rose and did his best to approach the help kiosk at the opposite end of the airport terminal at a casual pace, instead of the sprint he wanted to use. He jogged a few steps when the line of sight was blocked by a magazine stand.

“Excuse me,” he said, in a cheerful, slightly falsetto voice. “I was wondering if the environmental controls could be adjusted.”

“Temperature and humidity are normal,” replied the AI. This one was programmed to use a female-sounding voice. Good. The other one had annoyed him so quickly he’d almost punched it.

Stiltskind choked back vomit. “Ah, I’m sure, I’m sure,” he said, clearing his throat and wincing as stomach acid burned his throat. “But the, ah, air, quality, the air quality seems to be off. There’s that smell. Can’t you smell it?”

“We have had no other reports of smells.” Maybe he would have to punch this one.

“Yes, the, ah, the other passengers asked me to be their spokesperson. I used to repair kiosk AIs, you see. And the smell is very bad.”  He was going to say something more, but a coughing fit brought him to his knees. This time the nausea wouldn’t go away until he laid his head on the carpet. He watched crumbs and specks of dust flutter as he exhaled.

As soon as he thought he could hold himself up while leaning against the kiosk desk, he reached up with one hand and heaved his body into a semi-standing position.

“Oh, there you are,” said the AI. “I wanted to confirm — is the smell disturbing everyone, or just people with sensitivity to fragrances?”

Stiltskind glanced back at the terminal and the bodies littered across it. The ones who were moving at all were breathing shallowly.

“I’d say it’s everyone,” he said, before he lurched two steps to the right and bent over. This time he couldn’t hold back the vomit.

“Are you ill? Do you want me to call a medic in addition to the repair team?”

“That would be a good idea,” Stiltskind croaked.

“Please wait in the infirmary area,” the AI said. Stiltskind felt as though his brain were melting out of his ears, although he was fairly certain he’d be dead already if that were true. “It’s three and a half metres to the right,” it added. “I have unlocked the door for you.” Perhaps it was the effects of the fumes, but Stiltskind couldn’t help but think the AI sounded a little prim.

“Thanks,” he muttered thickly, and stumbled towards the door. He fell against the latch button, and managed to step inside and close the door behind him before any of the fumes followed.

The infirmary area was a small room separated from the main terminal with walls of frosted glass. It had three cots and a cupboard with medical supplies in it. Stiltskind had been in similar ones many times before. It was so rare for travelers to get ill these days, they were often used as break rooms by repair people.

The infirmary was designed to be sealed off from the rest of the terminal in case of infectious diseases. Certainly the air was much clearer inside than out. Stiltskind flopped onto the nearest cot and gulped in air. His face cracked into a half-hysterical laugh as he realised that if he’d arrived for his flight on time, he would have been affected like all the other biologicals in the terminal.

He sighed and pressed his back into the cot. Maybe it was an attack, or maybe it was just a major ventilation malfunction. Right now, he just wanted someone with some authority to deal with it.

#fridayflash : the window children

It’s controversial to say, but I am convinced that both confidence and despair give you certainty. Now, the counter-argument is perfectly clear. There will always be some Sally or Sanjay Sunshine ready to leap up and insist that despair is a paralytic while confidence is a motivator, but I am equally convinced that is false. Look what confidence did to the rabbit in the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable.

That seems to be what confuses the general population about myself and all of the other window children. Our forebears were selected for their robust constitutions, determination, problem-solving skills, intelligence, tolerance, ability to work well with others – all those things they knew their descendants would need for the voyage out and the colonisation. The history books make explicit mention that they checked for claustrophobia, because of course you don’t want a claustrophobic on a generation ship travelling through deep space. But they never checked for agoraphobia.

I am part of that small baby boom that happened when the outer planets ceased to be visible except from the portholes in the stern of the ship, and the dark green face of Gaia became visible off the bow for the first time. Thirty-seven of us were almost exactly three years old when the vibration of the floor plates and the croon of the great engines grumbled to a halt on the planet’s surface.

My parents stayed with me in our quarters and watched the wall screen. The camera on the starboard aerial showed the access ramp lowering for the first time since the ship left Earth.

“They’re letting the air out!” I screamed, and flung myself at my mother’s lap. I put my hands over my mouth, cheeks puffing out to conserve air. We’d played with balloons in nursery. I knew letting air out was a bad thing.

“This is why we can’t go to the observation lounge with you yet,” said my father, ruffling my hair.

I suppose he tried to explain airlocks next, but I was three, and at any rate I don’t really remember.

When it was time for the general population to disembark, my mother tried to carry me to the exit, but I screamed and twisted out of her arms, and ran back to our quarters, dodging between the legs of everyone else who was heading out. My father tried next, but although he was too strong for me to escape his grasp, he gave up and took me to the observation deck. He showed me the rest of the colonists exploring our new world, walking and playing in real sunshine for the first time in their lives.

I wasn’t having any of it. In the end, they had to give me a sedative right before bedtime. I woke up in our new, prefabricated shelter, and spent most of my first week screaming that I wanted to go home.

There were others, of course. Any child more than one or less than five years old experienced a certain amount of agoraphobia. Some older children and adults admitted to it as well, although none of them reacted so badly as to not be able to go outside at all. In the end, only eleven of us became permanent shut-ins.

So I’m not the only one, but I am the most famous, having become both a journalist and an award-winning maker of nature documentaries. That always makes people wonder, but the nature documentaries are because of my wanting to stay in, not in spite of it. My parents used to encourage me to watch the environmental exploration footage on the wall screens, in the hopes that I would acclimatise that way. Instead, it sparked an interest in drone photography. I’ve never left my parents’ pre-fab from the day they brought me here, but my drones have travelled all over the planet.

My poor parents. When I reached adulthood, they moved out rather than making me move away and suffer the terrors of another unfamiliar space. I suppose by that point we had reached a rough sort of understanding. Besides, by then they knew things could be worse. I really am a window child, in that I can look out the window at the world and not be (too) frightened. There are five who are so agoraphobic they can’t do that. Instead, they live in rooms with wall screens that play animations of stars going by, imitation ship’s engines rumbling through hidden speakers, every last tube of furniture taken from the original ship.

I’m not that bad. I’ve learned that if seeing the wind blow through the trees frightens me, I can just close the curtains. Easy.

Tomorrow it will be seventy-five years since we first landed here. The newscasts have been featuring different experts discussing what would have happened if we had missed the planet, or if our ancestors had been wrong about its inhabitability. Besides the famous fuel shortage which had to be compensated for en route (and that I still can’t quite believe — sounds like a conspiracy theory to me), supposedly the outer hull only had about ten more years of collisions with space particles before it would have been too thin and weak to land anywhere.

But that just sounds like a false dichotomy, like the supposed difference between confidence and despair. A room on a ship, a room on a planet. It doesn’t matter. They’re just places with windows to look out of.

#fridayflash : the leave-taking

Queen pushed the last branches away and stood on the bare strip of gravel between the woods and the water. The sound of the branches springing back into place startled a few pelicans, and they lazily flapped away from the perceived threat, the light of the full moon bright enough for them to fly in.

Queen closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and smiled. The salt water, the sweet, rich rot of the mud — this is what she’d miss the most, the smells. Kevin had promised the team an amazing garden, and she was sure he would deliver, but it wouldn’t be the same. She listened to the sound of the waves change intensity as an offshore breeze pushed them a little more forcefully into the shore.

A twig snapped behind her and she jumped, turning towards the sound. All of a sudden her white uniform shirt was too visible in the moonlight, her silhouette too sharp against the backdrop of the ocean and empty sky. “Someone there?” Her years of military service came rushing back, and she automatically reached for a hip holster she wasn’t wearing.

A woman appeared behind the last row of trees. Her skin was pale in the moon’s glow, and her hair, probably pale blonde in daytime, looked as white as a wraith’s. Her eyes were pale too, blue or grey. Queen could just make out the woman’s large black pupils.

“Please,” said the woman, making a gesture Queen couldn’t interpret with the tree branches in the way. “You’re not just ground crew, are you? You’re going.” The woman nodded, probably meaning to indicate Queen’s uniform.

“Ma’am, this is a secured area.” Queen raised both her hands slowly to shoulder level, palms held out towards the woman. She hoped the moon wasn’t backlighting her so much that her face and gestures were obscured. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m reaching in my shirt pocket now, see? and I’m going to call someone to pick you up. If you don’t make a fuss, I’ll be happy to tell them you just got lost and didn’t realise you’d passed the perimeter.” Her right hand moved slowly but steadily towards the pocket while she kept her left hand up.

“I was hoping I’d find one of you,” said the woman, bobbing her head up and down with an enthusiasm that was almost violent. “I figured some of you would be wandering around, last night and all. I don’t want to scare you. I’m just going to set her down right here, between the trees, and you can pick her up when you’re ready to go. It’s a mild night. She’ll be fine.”

Queen saw the woman’s pale head duck below the branches, and set something down among the tree roots, on the ground. She froze, phone half-pulled out of her pocket, and watched as the woman ran away, a pale ghost escaping from a bad dream.

She closed her eyes and listened, wishing her only route of escape wasn’t the ocean, wishing she’d gone and joined the leaving-Earth party with the rest of her crew. A laugh choked out of her when she realised she was listening for ticking. As the launch window had neared, there had been rumours about mad bombers and apocalypse cults. As if even the craziest of the science deniers would depend on a clockwork bomb.

Instead, her laugh triggered a high, thin wail. Queen’s eyes popped open, and she groaned.

The blanket the baby was wrapped in was dark. Queen had to approach obliquely, so the moonlight could illuminate the pale, scrunched-up little face peeking out of the swaddling. She picked the baby up and gently checked for signs of injury, but there was nothing obvious. Judging from the strength of its cries, it was perfectly healthy.

It had just been born too late for this world, though few of the planet's inhabitants knew how bad things really were.

Queen bobbed the infant up and down against her shoulder. When the baby finally quieted, she allowed herself one last long, hard look at the moonlight reflecting on the ocean, then turned and trudged back to the crew quarters.

Past the stand of trees, the grounds were illuminated by the giant spotlights trained on the generation ship. Queen stuck to the edges. Not that anyone was around so close to launch anyhow. The ship was as ready to leave the planet as it ever would be.

She slipped into quarters, sliding the light switch off before its motion detector could sense her presence. She could hear that in the mess hall, the party was still in full swing.

Her room was at the end of the corridor. She shut the door behind her and flicked on the lights with the point of her elbow.

“Let’s take a look at you,” she breathed, gently lowering the baby onto her bed. The infant had fallen asleep during the walk back. Queen undid the swaddling and checked the baby’s diaper was clean, discovering at the same time it was a girl.

Queen gently laid a flap of blanket over the baby’s body, straightened up, and put her hands on her hips. She was chief engineer for life support, and as such had been accorded four berths: one for her, one for her husband, and two for the children they were supposed to have to replace themselves and continue the mission to the colony star system. Well, she was still single, still not pregnant. It wouldn’t take more than a medical checkup to give the baby a berth. Two of the three pediatricians owed her a favour, and one of them didn’t drink. They could hurry through breakfast in the morning and do enough tests to rule on fitness for space travel.

She bent down and softly kissed the sleeping baby’s forehead. “You’re going to grow up and be an engineer, just like your new mama,” she whispered. She straightened up and sighed. “Like your new mama and your old mama.”

#fridayflash : space

Later, when James told the story, he wouldn't start with what the engineers announced. He'd talk about the reactions of the very old people, the ones who had been told since childhood that they wouldn’t live long enough to see the end.

James himself didn't even bother going to the observation lounge when the sighting was confirmed. Most people who were in their teens at the time, like him, couldn't be bothered, not unless they were massive astronomy nerds.

His mother made him go to the lounge with her. She pointed and told him to look, so he did, if only to get it over with.

He'd been right, he'd say later. There wasn't actually anything to see. Just a new spark of white in the black sky, looking a lot like all the other sparks of white that had been there for as long as he could remember. The patterns the stars formed kept changing, of course, since the ship was moving through space. But so what if this particular white thing was different? It wasn't like you could tell from looking at it.

On the way out of the lounge, an old woman fell to her knees practically in front of James. He helped her up — of course he would have, even if his mother hadn’t been standing right beside him. Like everyone else, he’d had “one community, one people” drilled into him from before he could understand the words.

But it was as he was looking into the woman’s face, asking if she was all right, that the import of that white speck finally reached him. The woman wasn’t seeing him, wasn’t seeing the crowd pressed against the observation windows. There were tears running down her face, but her eyes, her skin, even her white hair was glowing with rapturous bliss. In her expression James saw all of the joy, all the wonder and curiosity that he’d been told to feel. The lounge officer announced they all had to leave to let the next group of sightseers in, and as he guided the old woman to the exits, she clutched at his arm and said, “This will sound so foolish to you, but I wish my mother was here to see it with me.” She nodded at James’s mother, who was on her other side and discreetly shielding her from the crowd. “You’re very fortunate.”

“What was your mother’s assignment?” said James’s mother, in that polite way she had with everyone.

“Engineer,” said the old woman. “Me too. Engineer after engineer, going right back to the launch.”

“That’s a remarkable legacy,” said James’s mother.

They helped the woman back to her quarters. Until he actually spoke the word “good-bye”, James couldn’t think of anything at all to say to her.

The next part, James would always say, wasn’t a big change. Rather, it was an accumulation of little things, noticeable but of not much consequence on their own, until he woke up one day and glanced out the family window, and realised that the white speck was no longer a white speck, but a blue-green circle, and he could see it moving.

Which meant, of course, that he could see the ship moving, for the first time ever. Before, since long before he was born, stars and galaxies had drifted by the windows, but there had never been any sense of the motion. He’d known, for as long as he’d been old enough to understand, but he’d never been able to perceive it before.

After that a lot of things he’d learned in his lessons crashed through the barrier between the abstract and the real. Terms like gravity slingshot and atmosphere and terraforming. And after every sleep period the blue-green circle was larger, until it became a sphere, and the patterns its gaseous outer shell formed over its solid inner core were visible. It filled the entire view on the port side of the ship.

They didn’t actually land on it, of course. There isn’t anything to land on if the planet is a gas giant. But its gravity helped them reach the inner solar system sooner. Later, James would explain, after they were settled, the story would surface that the old woman he’d helped in the observation lounge had calculated they would run out of fuel before reaching the colony planet, and it was only the slingshot effect of going by the two gas giants along the way that let them reach their destination.

And the thing was, James would continue, it took eight more years for them to get where they were going. He was married and the father of a baby girl himself by the time they reached orbit.

The only scary part, he explained, was the landing itself, the landing and the immense silence when the great ship’s engines were turned off at last. The survey crew went out, did their tests, confirmed the atmosphere was close enough to their ancestral Earth’s that they could breathe it, and that their crops could too.

James always told the story so that he would get to the landing just as the tour group reached the entrance of the great ship. He’d park his wheelchair in front of the access ramp with a practised twist of the controls, and then activate the hologram showing him, his wife, his baby daughter in his arms, and the old engineer who had given him his sense of wonder, who had calculated them safe to their new home. He would joke he started giving the museum tours when he was older than the engineer had been at first landing.

And then, just before the barriers came down and the tourists were allowed to board the generation ship that had brought their ancestors to the planet, he would tell them how hard it had been for his daughter to believe her parents were born out in the black, in between the stars, and that she herself had been born between the planets. And then he’d ask the group to think about that while they toured his old home.

#fridayflash: upload history

My great-great-grandfather attended four of his five funerals, one time disguised as an aunt from Sicily. For the last one, when it was finally really him, the priest refused to perform the funeral Mass unless the family agreed to bury him in a glass coffin. He was shot in the head at close range with a Colt .45, so it didn't actually prove a damn thing. The police attended to make sure it was really him, and they insisted on opening the coffin, pulling down his pants, and checking he had a tattoo where his old prison canary buddy said it would be.

The cops made up for their indiscretion by bearing the coffin to the graveyard. Some newspapermen claimed they did it so the family couldn't hide another body in there at the last minute. I shit you not. The priest got in a fight with the detective for disrupting the funeral and gave the cop a bloody nose. The Sun printed a photo of the flatfoot wiping blood from his shirt with the padre still screaming in his face.

But all that happened in the 1930s, during Prohibition. It was easier to fake a death back then, easier still to find a body to bury. Still, my great-grandfather was declared killed in action twice during the Second World War. And I don't mean getting pulped by an artillery shell or nothing — my family paid their respects to two poor bastards who got identified wrong. The second one, my grandmother threw a fit when they gave her personal effects with some other woman's photo included.

Don’t blame the Army, though. The second time great-grandad was discovered to be alive, they found him in a wine cellar in Sicily, and he had the dog tags of an Italian infantryman around his neck. He never told anyone how he got them, or what he’d been up to. My dad told me the name on the tags was common in the part of the old country where our family was from, before we came to America. He figured great-grandad had been working on the family business.

My great-grandfather finally died of old age in Pasadena when he was ninety-seven.

My grandfather and father, they kept things running, kept the traditions up. My grandfather only had two funerals, a fake one he always called "pulling an Elvis", and the real one, forty years later. He insisted the stiff they buried the first time was Jimmy Hoffa, and that he'd killed him himself. The old man always was kind of full of it.

By the time my father was taking care of things, it was almost impossible to fake a funeral, at least an open casket one. And I have to admit, it’s a known fact that coroner’s offices throughout the Eastern Seaboard had notes posted reminding staff to be extra-thorough when a stiff IDed with our surname came in. Dad got declared missing and presumed dead three times though — none too shabby when satellites and computers are tracking your every damned move. He lived to be 105, never went on the net, never had a smartphone, even after the government made them mandatory. He used to carry an empty phone shell in his breast pocket so cops on the beat wouldn't hassle him.

So. Times change. Life goes on. But some things, the important things, like family, and tradition, those things stay the same, you know? In a few minutes I'm going to honour the long line of brave and smart men whose loins I'm sprung from, and I'm gonna up the ante for my children and grandchildren.

As soon as that coroner gets done with arranging all his tools, I'm gonna attend my own autopsy.

#fridayflash : lucky lucky goldilocks

Once upon a time there lived a little girl in a small town surrounded by deep, dark woods. Her hair was long and golden, her pinafore was always freshly pressed and white, and her father was the burgher, so she was always sure to have as many friends as she wished. Her name was Wilhemina, but everyone called her Goldilocks, on account of her hair. She liked it. It was a cute name.

One day, she decided to walk into the woods and pick wildflowers. She wandered farther than she meant to, and had completely forgotten to bring a lunch, so she was very glad to come across a little cottage. No-one was home, so she hit the window beside the door with a rock until it shattered, and let herself in. 

The coals in the fireplace had been covered to smoulder in the owners' absence, and Goldilocks put some kindling on to work up some flames. There was a bowl of porridge on the table, but when she tried it, it was cold and very unpleasant. She helped herself to some cider to rinse away the taste, then put some porridge from the pot above the fire into a new bowl, but it was too hot. 

That's going to take forever to cool down she thought, so she scraped out the last of the porridge into a smaller bowl, and soon it was just right. She ate her fill, and afterwards played a little by jumping on the larger double bed. Soon the warmth and the food and the exercise made her feel sleepy. She settled into the smaller single bed to take a nap. 

Goldilocks woke to the sound of angry voices just outside the cottage door. There were two, no three of them, and they were talking about the broken window. "But how will we ever afford a new one?" a woman's voice kept saying.

"What's done is done," said the older male voice. "Let's hope there's still dinner at least."

"But Baird," said the woman's voice, "what if they're still in there?"

The voices became too low for her to hear. She'd never been in trouble before, not really, but it dawned on her that she was in the middle of the deep dark woods, that these people were obviously upset, and that there was only one of her against three of them. She cursed herself for not staying in town, near her friends and family.

Then she realised that the cottage had a second window, and that it was on the back wall. She jumped out of the small bed and ran to it. The latch was stiff, but she managed to work it open and lift the sash. She used a night-stand as a stepping stool, and had wriggled halfway through when large coarse hands pulled her, squealing, back into the cottage. Goldilocks found herself staring up at a large, shapeless, and very hairy man.

"You made all this mess?" he said. He shook his head. "I never."

"I was lost!" she cried. "I was frightened! There was a wolf, and — "

"There haven't been wolves in these parts for over a hundred years," said the woman. Goldilocks stared at her. She was as large and shapeless as her husband, and almost as hairy.

"Mrs. Baird is right," said the man. "This is her family's cottage, been here for six generations." He straightened up and jerked down the tails of his well-patched waistcoat. "And what state is the porridge in, Mrs. Baird?"

"It's all stone cold right now," said the woman. She had moved to the fireplace, and poked at the bottom of the cooking-pot with a wooden spoon. "And there's a layer of burnt grain in the pot as thick as your thumb, thanks to being left over the fire with barely anything inside." She glared at Goldilocks.

"She ate from my bowl," said the little boy, staring mournfully at the dishes Goldilocks had left on the table.

"Never ye mind," said Mr. Baird. "Momma will wash it for you tomorrow. Right now we have to go to town with this one and lodge a complaint."

"Who would hear your complaint?" said Goldilocks. Her father heard complaints in his role as burgher. Vagrants and drunks and layabouts had complaints brought against them. Couldn't they see what sort of person she was? She checked her pinafore. It was wrinkled, but still mostly white. She picked off a spot of crusted porridge and flicked it away.

"Right then," said Mr. Baird, taking her by the arm with a firm grip, "let's be off so we don't have to go home in the dark. If we're lucky there'll even be time to talk to the glazier."

Goldilocks only spoke when spoken to the whole walk home, which was shorter than she had expected. When they reached the burgher's house — so large and splendid that the Bairds remarked on it even in their anger — her mother came rushing out and embraced her.

"We didn't know where you were!" her mother said. "Goldilocks, you mustn't wander off, we've told you! There are wolves in those woods!"

"There haven't been wolves in the woods since —" started Mr. Baird, but he was interrupted by Goldilocks's father, who stood on the top of the front steps to his house.

"Did the man hurt you, Goldilocks?" said her father. He must have just got home, for he still wore his chain of office.

Goldilocks said "no", but she rubbed her arm and looked down as she said it.

"I see," said her father. "You are hereby banished from town for a year, beginning now. Now," he added, when the Bairds didn't move immediately.

Goldilocks heard Baird Junior say, "But what about seeing the glazier?" as they walked away, and his mother shushing him.

She got pork chops and sauerkraut for dinner, her favourite. And certainly she lived happily ever after.

#fridayflash : wax fruit

 "Let's make popcorn," I said, because why not? It wasn't like there were any more notes to write.

"All right," said Bill, and Vijaya nodded behind him. "Even academics have to eat."

I shambled to the small kitchen off the staff lounge to microwave the popcorn. It was the stuff with the fake butter mixed in, and gave the whole room that smell, a phony version of a movie theatre. When I returned to the lounge, Bill was pouring bright green liquid into clear plastic tumblers.

"It's one of those sports drinks," said Bill, raising a tumbler to me in a mock toast. "I couldn't find anything fizzy." The drink caught the light from the "no signal" notice the TV monitor was displaying, making the liquid fluoresce. "Perhaps it's a little too appropriate for this, ah, meeting."

"It'll be fine," said Vijaya. I set the bowl of popcorn on the coffee table, picked up my tablet, and set the file to play.

The norm with my old colleagues had been to talk over films. They were arenas for competition: who had spotted which reference to The Third Man, symbolism lifted from Norse mythology, or a particularly interesting edit. Films, to us, were self-documented constructions for us to decode, with extra gold stars given if you could out-decode everyone else in the room. I'd forgotten; Bill was a biologist and Vijaya was a physicist. To them it was just entertainment, and something the artsies mysteriously made careers from while the scientists made the "real" advances.

"There!" I said, hitting pause just as Brendan Gleeson snorted, "Irradiated" and lifted the create of apples from the display case. "See? They knew!"

Vijaya sighed. "Well of course they knew irradiating food preserved it," she said. "That's why they were irradiating it."

"But the context," I said, waving the tablet around. "28 Days Later is about a zombie apocalypse brought on by disease. And in the middle of all this death and rot and mayhem, the one thing that lets the group of good guys get fresh food is radiation. The exact thing that was the bad guy in a whole subgenre of monster movies dating back to the 1950s!" I set the remote control down on the coffee table and sipped some energy drink in triumph.

Bill and Vijaya just watched me swallow my bright green drink.

"I don't know much about film criticism," said Bill. "I ran away from English class as soon as I was done my comps. But I think you're applying a little too much hindsight to your interpretation." He fished a phone out of his shirt pocket and showed me the wallpaper image on the screen. "That's a Big Mac and fries under glass in Iceland," he said, "the last McDonald's meal that was ever bought there before the restaurant chain left the country. That food had been sitting out for three years when the photo was taken." He shrugged. "Things stopped rotting a long time before we got to the present circumstances. My parents used to toss food out of the fridge because it was dried out, not rotten. I remember having to buy organic for a science fair project so I'd grow enough mold on my experiment in time for the presentation."

Shrieks of laughter outside made us all jump. Vijaya twisted in her seat to peer at the windows. "They can't —"

"They're new windows," I said. "They're bulletproof. They should be able to handle a few rocks. Plus there's the bars, outside and inside."

Vijaya looked at me and frowned. "They're new?"

I shrugged. "New as in installed just after all this became... official."

A scream, obviously from someone standing right by the building, four stories below. "It's a shame they won't sit still for a blood sample," said Bill. "We might be able to fix this, at least for them." He reached for his glass of energy drink, pressed his lips together, and added, "Some of the plants in my greenhouse still grow. If nothing else changes I'll have fresh tomatoes this summer." He turned to me. "Do you mind if I ask how old you are now?"

I didn't keep track of the number anymore, so I said the current year out loud and made a show of counting on my fingers. "143," I said.

Vijaya leaned forward. "And the last visible signs of aging, you were what?"

"Around thirty-seven," I said, picking up my tablet and switching the video output to the original Dawn of the Dead. "You?"

"Twenty-nine," said Vijaya.

"I was forty-one," said Bill. Outside, the screams started up again, a small pack from the sounds of it. Bill held up a finger to stop me from starting the playback, then slipped to the floor and crawled around the room, turning off all the lamps. Vijaya and I didn't react; we'd done the same ourselves in times past. It was to keep from being silhouetted against the windows. It would get worse than noisy if the young ones out there spotted us directly.

Bill turned off the TV monitor last and felt his way back to the couch. He didn't touch me, but I could sense his body heat just before he found the middle sofa cushion and sat back down.

I held my breath for a few seconds, and heard two people breathing nearby, so I figured Vijaya hadn't left the room. At least, that's how we always used to check back when the film department was still more than just me. "The film I was going to show, most of it takes place in a mall," I said, keeping my voice low. "So, you know, processed goods, plastic, the artificial lifestyle —"

I heard Vijaya stifle a gasp, and Bill clenched my hand so fast I wondered if he could see me in the dark. He clenched harder as the thunk they'd both noticed while I was talking sounded again. The stairs; it had to be on the stairs.

I ran my hand up Bill's arm, found his ear, leaned forward until I was nearly kissing it. "There's knives in the kitchenette," I whispered. "I'll get them." Bill stroked my hand in agreement, and I slipped from the couch as a thunk sounded again.

#fridayflash: real

She always loved how her apartment looked in late afternoon sun. The light had a richer, more generous colour than it did in the morning, making the whole room feel more vivid. The décor was minimal, but each piece was richly patterned. She was especially fond of the replica seventeenth-century Egyptian carpet, with its myriad shades of turquoise and scarlet. It set off the lacquered tables and the quiet damask upholstery of the couch. The rooms had what the designers called a good use of negative space.

There was a stereo in one corner, tastefully hidden in an antique cabinet, but she rarely turned it on. Instead she liked to concentrate on the warmth of the sun slowly thickening the air, the occasional bird-chirp outside her window, and, faintly, the tick — tick — tick — tick — tick of the midcentury modern wall clock she had hanging in her dining room. The reassurance. The comfort. The stasis. The harmonies. It was all very pleasing.

Outside it was early evening, the long-shadowed, blue-grey light that happens often in the summer, when sunsets seem to fade at a quarter of the speed they do in winter. Behind her building was a park, and she took a walk on the narrow asphalt path, letting the palm of her hand brush over the tops of the long grass stalks that grew alongside. The parkland was unmanicured, feral, but convenient. She liked it that way. Just enough done — that is, the walking path — so that the area was enjoyable, but not so much that it felt manufactured. Maybe twenty metres from where she was walking, there was a shallow creek. Some stalks of grass had got caught in the flow, and there was a faint drip — drip — drip — drip — drip as the splashed water dropped into a still puddle. She liked how the air was crisp without being chilly. She liked that there were no mosquitoes. She liked how if she held her breath, all she could hear was the water and just the slightest rustle of the leaves stirred by a breeze she couldn't feel.

She had to work, just like everyone else. She was a database analyst in a large, forward-thinking firm. Like all of her co-workers, she had a mini-office that allowed privacy but still let in plenty of light and air. All the furniture and storage was built-in, even the visitor's seat that popped out from a side unit. The mini-office was made with pale-coloured materials and red trim, and had cobalt blue shades on each of the five high-efficiency work lamps. It was a productive, energising place to work. A couple of metres away, if she listened for it, she could hear the click — click — click — click — click of her nearest colleague's mouse. It was so steady, like the windup alarm clock you were supposed to place in the crate to soothe a new puppy.

She fought it, but her eyes fluttered open anyhow. She saw the disintegrating white ceiling tiles first, and then, as she turned her head, the windows, completely covered with grime for at least two generations. At least, that's what they'd told her. She turned her head the other way, and saw, like it was the first time all over again, the other gurneys, with people on them, just like her. Strapped down, just like her. Rows and rows of them. She couldn't make out the far wall.

She tried to turn onto her side, but the restraints wouldn't let her. They never did, and like a recurring nightmare the panic set in. She wanted to scream, to vomit, to move more than the few centimetres the restraints permitted.

Skrick — skrick — skrick — skrick — skrick went the robot's treads along the worn floor tiles. The robot leaned over her, and it almost seemed as if it perceived her wide, wild eyes, the back-of-the-throat whine she was making that threatened to become a scream.

A door opened in the robot's chest, and a syringe-tipped appendage slid out with a reassuring shhhhh sound. The robot threaded the tip of the syringe neatly into the IV port. Her eyes closed, the scene faded, and she decided to get up from the couch and listen to the radio for a while before she went outside for her usual evening walk.

#fridayflash : strong walls and a stout door

They lowered the foundation first, an industrial hourglass shape made of engineered basalt. Cameras mounted on the underside of the construction ship recorded the reaction of the indigenous major fauna. It was obvious by minute mark one that the researcher had her work cut out for her. The sloth creatures ran away sensibly, but then, after the foundation was settled on the ground but before the grappling hooks had been disengaged, they came creeping back to check out the new, alien structure. It took them less than thirty seconds to start trying to scratch the surface with their long, hard claws. 

The construction ship checked the foundation was level, took some air and soil samples, and returned to the orbiting mother ship. 

The administrators reviewed the video first, before using excerpts to brief the researcher. In their estimation the sloth creatures showed an intelligence level at least on par with Earth gorillas. If she wanted the supply ships to keep coming, they explained, she was going to have to get close enough to these animals to interact with them. And if she ever wanted to repay the student loans she owed them and get off the planet, she was going to have to produce excellent research work. They proudly announced they'd added old data on Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall to the resident pod's archives, for inspiration.

The researcher took copious notes, and only asked factual clarification questions. At the end she requested protective gear to wear when venturing outside. The administrators showed more photos of Fossey and Goodall and said "no".

The saucer-shaped pod was cramped and stuffy during the descent to the planet. Because of how the gear had been stowed away, the researcher only had about a square metre of space to her own. She remembered not to brace herself when the planet's gravity kicked in, and scrambled up from the heap she'd made on the pod's floor to look out the only portal she could get to. The pod's location was in a small clearing, surrounded by a dense assortment of flora most reminiscent of a tropical jungle, although the administrators had informed her the forest was mostly giant ferns, not trees. Minerals in the planet's soil tinted all of the chlorophyll-creating life a dark turquoise.

The pod bumped against the foundation brackets, and the researcher curled into a fetal position on the floor. The final shudder as the grappling hooks were disengaged made one of the shipping crates fall on her, but it only had blankets and clothing in it, so she escaped with only a few bruises.

The researcher spent the next several days checking none of her supplies had been damaged during the landing, assembling the prefab observation deck and vegetable garden on the roof, and taking notes on as much as she could of her surroundings without leaving the pod. She didn't have to worry about going to where the sloth creatures were — they came to her, and in greater numbers once her vegetable garden started to smell interesting.

She was able to make plenty of detailed observations from on top of the saucer, which pleased her, because the sloth creatures were both large — the smallest ones were three metres tall on their hind legs — and aggressive. Even though the research station seemed to have sustained the interest of a large group, they fought with each other like male elephants in mating season. Their multi-coloured fur patterns indicated self-domesticity, but it seemed as if they spent all the time not dedicated to sleeping or eating either having loud, vigorous sex, or else trying to kill each other. They alternated between the latter two activities very abruptly, some couplings going from courtship to carnage in minutes. The researcher made plenty of video recordings, but even after much study was unable to determine what caused the shifts in behaviour.

The research pod's foundation never ceased to fascinate the creatures. The largest of them could stretch past five metres. They spent a lot of time trying to climb the foundation, but its surface was too smooth and hard to allow that. The researcher discovered with some alarm one morning that three of the beasts were attempting to form a sort of acrobatic pyramid so that they could gain access to the roof of the pod.

The foundation was twenty metres high, and try as the creatures might, they couldn't manage the last five metres. That didn't stop her from running to the trap door and diving back inside the pod when the creatures made a more serious attempt, however.

She was awoken one night by the scream of metal against metal. She'd long moved her cot from its assigned position by one of the portals to the centre of the pod, near the trap door used to get to ground level. In the morning all was quiet, and she ventured onto the roof to discover the creatures had created vine ropes and tried to lasso and pull off some of the safety rails from the observation deck. She photographed the damaged railing and collected as much of the rope as she could.

The administrators demanded she collect some scat of the beasts. She ventured down the pod's rope ladder during the quietest time of day, and barely made it back to the pod. It took weeks for the long claw-gash on her arm to heal. She took many photographs of the injury, including the healing process. To understand if the claws had poison, she wrote in her reports, but she hoped she was making another point.

Her final report included video footage of two sloths tying vines into an imitation of her rope ladder, and a plea for her pod to be retrieved before the creatures could complete their work.

When the transmissions ceased, the investigative team found only an empty foundation, surrounded by pod wreckage like a monument forgotten.

#fridayflash: bizarre love triangle

Woodcut frontispiece of Alexander Barclay, Lyfe of Seynt George (Westminster, 1515).

Welcome back, and what an epic we're getting to watch today! The first half was Team Dragon all the way, from the daring snatch-and-grab of the princess from the Knight's own end, to the relentless pursuit by Team Knight, all the way back to the Dragon's own zone. The horn sounded with the Dragon still defending the prize, but the Knight has changed his steed line-up during the break, and he's thundering down the pitch. He definitely hasn't given up yet.

And there's the lance! The Dragon took to the air to dodge it, leaving the princess exposed, if only for a split second. Team Knight had a chance there, but unfortunately they had to retrieve their lance from the pitch. The Knight's pulled his steed back a few paces. Look at that grim determination! Under the helm it's all knitted brows and steely glares. The incredible focus of the consummate professional.

Augh! That was close! The Dragon used that moment of hesitation from Team Knight to volley over some fireballs, but the Knight directed the steed to canter sideways. Team Knight is at a distinct disadvantage. They made no gains in the first half, and with the clock ticking, there's no sign of the Dragon giving up the superior position. The Dragon has the princess completely defended. No play by the Knight is getting by, and the Dragon doesn't have a scale out of place. If the Knight doesn't come up with something soon, this second half is just going to be a slow march to the final sound of the horn.

But wait! Team Knight just attempted a suicidally brave flanking manoeuvre, charging full gallop at the Dragon's right side! The Dragon's swung his long neck about to bite off an appendage from either Knight or steed, and... this is incredible! The Dragon only knocked the Knight's sword out of his hand! He didn't complete the defence!

The Dragon's turned to put himself between the Knight and the princess, but — yes! Yes! The tide has turned! The Knight has taken advantage of the Dragon's split-second move to reposition himself, and delivered a lance blow right through the Dragon's neck! This could well be the fatal moment for the Dragon. There's still time left on the clock, but suddenly it doesn't look good at all for the side that led the first half.

And now — wait — I, uh — something unusual is happening on the pitch. Team Knight is keeping steady pressure on that lance skewering move, but there is movement behind the Knight and steed that shouldn't be — there may be a bystander on the pitch. If there's a bystander on the pitch, there may be an interruption, and if there's an interruption at this crucial moment, tables may turn again.

It may be — no! The Knight's steed has fallen onto the pitch! It's difficult to say from this angle what actually happened, but it appears that the steed was suddenly lamed. It may be a hamstring injury, which is common enough at this level of combat, but it's unusual for it to come on while the steed is standing still. Could it be the steed is faking an injury to further damage the Dragon side? We can't rule it out, but it seems like an unusual play to make when the Dragon is already down, especially since it caused the Knight to fall as well. The Dragon's lost a lot of blood now, the pitch is becoming quite slippery, so it's possible also that the steed simply lost his footing and....

Oh. Oh, that's very unusual.

The princess has picked up the Knight's sword, and, judging from the fresh blood dripping from it, it was she who just lamed the steed. She's now approaching the Knight! I'm not sure how much of this is by the rules, but —

Oh. I, um — the princess has just sliced the Knight's head mostly off, and with one blow too. There's been much debate as to whether wearing heavy robes and doing needlework all day had isometric benefits, and perhaps we're getting our answer now. Still, although there are still eighteen minutes left on the clock, it looks like enough rules have been broken that a forfeit is inevitable, and —

Oh.

The princess has just stabbed the Dragon through the — I believe it's the, yes, it's his left eye — with the sword. The Dragon has fallen to the pitch. The Dragon isn't moving.

The Knight and the steed aren't moving either. I'm not sure what this means in terms of game resolution, certainly there are no rules about the princess having agency, but —

Oh.

The princess is leaving the pitch. She still has the sword.

#fridayflash : the state of wednesday night

Wednesday, so the shop is open late for knit night. The annual inventory sale is on to let the winter wools make way for the summer cottons and linens. Amongst the little plastic stem glasses of red wine and the larger paper cups of coffee and tea are lots of turquoise shopping bags, filled with bargains of bulky alpaca and soon-to-be-back-issues of Rowan magazine.

There's always a crowd on knit night, and despite the cold weather alert the shop is packed with women attempting to catch up on their projects, take their turn being queen bee, and snag some deals, all at the same time. The group is divided into four or five knots of knitters, depending on where in the room they're sitting and how much the current queen holding court can make herself heard over the din.

Here's an Anglican minister, answering the unasked question as to why her hair is so short. It's because she's ordained, not because her wife had any say about it. Really, she tells everyone within earshot, she and her wife don't attempt to control each other. They have a very positive, mutually supportive relationship. She repeats it so often some of the listeners wonder what's wrong.

Two women frown over a pattern in the bay window seat at the front, while the rest of their group giggle over the ridiculous things their past lovers learned from watching porn. "He was so devastated when he found out women don't actually like that," says a younger woman with auburn hair. "So I said, well duh, think about how it would taste for two seconds and it's obvious!" The group collapses into giggles again.

A woman with salt-and-pepper hair graces the end of the long table in the centre of the shop. She pauses in her work on a wedding-ring shawl to open the pattern book she's working from, so she can show the teenage girl to her left what it will look like when completed. "I could never do that," says the girl, glancing at the thick scarf on her own needles and cringing.

"Of course you can," says the older woman. "You just have to decide you want one."

"But it's so much work."

"With great effort comes great accomplishment," says the older woman. "Isn't that from a film?" Her much-younger beau — no, frequent date — no, regular sexual partner — insisted on taking her to see one of those comic-book films the other night. She was surprised by how much she enjoyed it. She didn't feel tired at all when they went back to his place. She doesn't dare mention him on knit night, or else be pounced upon. Like a yard full of hens pecking a weaker member of the flock to death. Granola in one hand, Victorian smelling-salts in the other, that was this lot.

And then, about fifteen minutes before the shop owner takes her first glance at the clock and wonders how to gracefully close up, two men barge through the shop door. The one ahead stumbles, nearly knocks over a dressmaker's dummy wearing a sample Fair Isle cardigan, and catches himself on a set of cubbyholes full of yarn. His friend strides in, takes his elbow, apologies streaming from his lips like water from a fire hydrant. He turns his gaze around the full perimeter of the room, hoping someone will notice and forgive him.

The drunkest man takes two more steps towards the back, falls against the cubbyhole a second time, and notices a price list on the shelf above. He scans the room as the knitters stare back, holds up the list, and says, "Are these the rates?"

"Sorry, so sorry," his friend says, lunging to catch at his sleeve and losing his own balance. "We're drunk, I mean he's drunk, I mean we've been out drinking, sorry..."

"Is your rate on here?" the drunkest man asks the teenage girl, who sits frozen with one hand on her half-finished scarf.

The Anglican minister and the woman working on the wedding-ring shawl stand. "Cold night air will do you good," says the older woman. "Clear your head." The Anglican minister puts her hand on the man's arm and is helping him to the door before he can realise what's happening. His friend follows, still dribbling apologies.

"Any casualties?" the Anglican minister calls out as she shuts the door.

"Only flesh wounds," says the woman working on the wedding-ring shawl, and the room drowns in laughter.

"I guess those guys didn't know how historically accurate they were being," says one of the women in the bay window.  

"May as well wrap up for the night," says the shop owner, sensing an advantage. "We're not going to top that."

 

#fridayflash : man of mystery

Who are you, Stella Artois man? Every time I go to a general admission show, like at the Phoenix or the Docks, there you are, walking around with a three-quarters-full glass of Stella Artois, logo on the glass self-consciously turned out. And it works, because all the friends I've ever gone to hear a band with notice that glass first before they notice you. You are a walking cup-holder, a movable product placement. If the lights are up and the band's not on, you pace around the floor, crossing in front of the crowd's vision, always keeping that mostly-full glass of beer prominent. I've never seen you drink from it. I've never seen you order it from the bar. And I've definitely never seen anyone else with glass walking about. The rest of us sip from the same semi-clear plastic cups that renders even the choicest brew unappealing. Spit sticks to the rim of the cup. Lipstick smears instantly. The cups themselves get soft and difficult to hold once the crowd reaches critical mass and the air warms up. But not you. You have a Stella Artois glass.

But who are you, Stella Artois man? If you're a walking advertisement, you're a strange one. You show up at music gigs, the most gregarious sort of public entertainment out there (save sports), yet you are always alone. The people from Sleeman Beer act like they're the best friend you haven't met yet, and breezily shout "Cheers!" over the noise as they hand out samples. Steam Whistle Brewery has reps at countless art and cultural events, and they always act like they're there for the show and oh, right, they're working as well. Not you. You don't circulate through the crowd so much as navigate it. The few times you've realised figuring out what the hell you're doing is my pre-opening-act entertainment, you've looked actually frightened. Men don't seem to scare you as much, but neither do you talk to them. It makes a certain amount of marketing sense to replace you with a robot.

So who are you, Stella Artois man? Winter or summer, you'll be there in a tan leather jacket, a white shirt with thin red stripes, blue jeans that are probably Levis. The bands I go to hear attract all kinds of people, a cross-section of fashion style, income level, and music preferences. We are music lovers as a pack of licorice all-sorts, always different but somehow consistent in our geeky fixations on what we enjoy. But not you. Same clothes, same haircut, same solitude, same glass filled three-quarters full. I've seen your face when the house lights start to go down. You look like you're turning off, not on.

And this, finally, is why I wonder so much about you: you don't look like you actually like music, not any of the music played by the bands whose shows I've seen you at. You look like you'd be much happier with those brown loafers off your feet and the tan jacket off your shoulders, sitting in some downtown apartment's living room, watching the evening news and its stock market round-up with the glass of Stella perched on an end-table.

I wanted to make a fiction from you: a space alien trying to fit in long enough to study cultural rituals, or an ancient Mesopotamian beer god lost in nostalgia and dejection for modern-method vat brewing. A wizard with a magic potion, or a superhero undercover, making sure everyone makes it through the show safely. But none of these are as strange as you; all of them are more decipherable.

You are a fixture that doesn't fit. So who are you?

#fridayflash: sasquatchewan

Tom set the bowl on the counter and opened a cupboard. He pulled out a bag of pretzels, opened it, and sniffed.

"Is there a date on the bag?" said Christine.

Tom jumped. He hadn't realised his sister was standing in the kitchen. He glared at the front of the pretzels bag and shook his head. "It doesn't say either way," he said.

Christine shrugged and stepped forward just enough to dip her hand in the bag and take a pretzel. There was a loud snap as she bit off a piece, and her hand flew to her mouth. After some rapid pokes at different teeth, she removed the piece from her mouth and tossed it in the trash. "It doesn't taste stale, anyhow," she whispered.

Tom's shoulders slumped. He dumped the pretzels into the bowl. "Aunt Mabel didn't say either of us had to eat them." He picked up a pretzel that had fallen onto the counter and waved it at Christine. "Happy New Year."

Christine shook her head. "I swear," she breathed, "I don't want to be drinking age to drink. I just want to be old enough to go to my own New Year's party and not get baby-sat anymore."

"You two!" came a screech from the TV room. "You're being anti-social."

"I just need to put the bag in the garbage, Aunt Mabel!" said Tom.

"What about your sister?"

"I had to rearrange the fridge to fit the Coca-Cola in, Aunt Mabel!" said Christine. She opened and slammed the fridge door. "No, the door still isn't sealing. I better move the milk."

"You can't leave the fridge with the door open!"

"I know. I'll make sure." Christine rolled her eyes at Tom.

"Well hurry up. I don't want to miss this idiot from Dubuque. Every time he gets ahead, he buys a damned vowel."

"Who watches game show reruns, anyhow?" hissed Tom.

"Our aunt does," whispered Christine. "And there's a marathon of them until midnight."

"Yay." Tom crumpled up the pretzel bag and opened the lid on the trash bin. When he let the lid drop, it didn't close completely.

Tom grimaced, lifted the lid again, and pushed the garbage down, but when he dropped the lid, the pretzel bag unfolded itself and pushed the lid up. Tom sighed. "Mabel's going to freak if she sees that in the morning. It has to go out tonight."

"I'll hold the door open," said Christine.

"No, it's your turn to go out," said Tom. "I'll hold the door open."

Christine shrugged. "Can't blame me for trying. " It wasn't snowing for once, but it was well below freezing. Aunt Mabel's house didn't have a garage, so they had to put the garbage in cans kept in the alleyway.

"HA!" Christine and Tom both jumped and stared in the direction of the living room. "HA! This ninny from Buffalo just tried to guess Big Foot was from Saskatchewan! Where would something like that hide on the prairies?" There was a thunk as Aunt Mabel hit the side table with her cane for emphasis. "It's British Columbia! Where do they find these people?" The TV set got louder as an ad for a pickup truck played.

Tom swayed his head from side to side. "Sasquatch, Saskatchewan, you could see someone making the mistake."

"It's Saskatchewan, not Sasquatchewan!"

"Okay," said Christine. "Aunt Mabel, the garbage is full. I'm going to take it out."

"Do that," said Aunt Mabel. "Tom, stop hiding in the kitchen. Come sit here."

"I will. I'm going to hold the door for Christine. It's really dark already."

Christine and Tom heard the musical cue announcing the resumption of the game show. They exchanged shrugs, and Christine pulled the bag out of the garbage bin while Tom retrieved a fresh bag from under the counter.

They went to the mudroom. Christine pushed her arms into the sleeves of her parka, and pulled Tom's watch-cap over her ears. She picked up the bag of garbage and opened the outer door. Tom stood in the doorway and held the door with his fingertips, wincing as the cold glass reached the pain threshold.

He heard a loud clang and a grunt. "Did you knock over the trash can?" When Christine didn't answer he stuck his head out the door.

Christine was standing perfectly still with her back to Tom, the garbage bag in her left hand. The knocked-over trash can was at her feet. It was the only thing between her and the white, furry man-creature staring at her.

Tom couldn't see the — person's? animal's? — face in the dark alleyway, but from the tilt of its head, he guessed it was staring right back at his sister. He felt the blood drain from his face as he realised that, even though he was standing on the top doorstep, a good metre higher than the walkway, the creature was still slightly taller than he was.

"Hey!" he yelled. He smacked the brick wall with his hands, which didn't make the loud sound he'd been hoping for. "HEY! This is a private walkway! Get lost!"

The creature gave a startled-sounding grunt, jerked its head up, backed up a few steps, then turned and ran. Tom caught a glimpse of it loping away under the streetlights as he shuffled awkwardly down the steps to Christine, his socks sticking to the ice on the concrete.

"Are you okay?" he said, gingerly stepping onto the frozen grass and setting the garbage can upright.

Christine's mouth opened and closed, but no words came out. Tom took the bag of garbage from her and put it in the trash can. When he tugged at her sleeve, she followed him into the house.

Tom pulled the door shut behind them and double-checked it was locked. Christine giggled suddenly as she pulled off her parka.

"What?"

"Sasquatchewan."

"This is Ontario. Southern Ontario, even."

"Maybe it got lost."

Tom's breath came out between a choke and a laugh. "Let's just check all the doors and windows are locked before we give Aunt Mabel the pretzels."

#fridayflash : the meaning

It wasn't fair, and it especially wasn't fair because the silly beasts couldn't even remember how the tradition had started. Everett stood at the edge of the shopping mall parking lot and sighed. He scanned the expanse of asphalt, completely packed with cars as it was, and carefully checked for any signs of movement.

There were three cars prowling the laneways in search of a nonexistent empty spot. One of them was following a plump man pushing a shopping buggy away from the mall entrance. Everett watched the man's movements and smiled to himself, just stopping short of showing his teeth. The driver of the following car was an idiot. Even from where Everett stood, it was obvious the man was just going to load up his car and return to the depths of the mall again.

The whine of an electric motor cut through the cold thin air. A security guard was headed his way on patrol. Everett had dressed well to ward off suspicion — a dark wool coat, black muffler, and his favourite pre-war brogues — but the mall cop might still stop and talk to him, assume one of the cars nearby was his and that he needed help starting it or something. He picked his way between the cars and emerged into the laneway, hands stuck in his pockets because that's what they did when it was this cold. The frozen slush crunched beneath his feet.

He scolded himself. He did this every time, and ought to know better by now. Sunset fell at half-past four this time of year, and by five he was out hunting, eagerly sniffing out strays. But the prey were all in a hurry too, and between five and seven was the meal-time for most of them.

He picked his way across the parking lot, glancing up every once in a while, willing the giant towers with the enormous lamps shining from them to fail. Just one. That's all he needed. Just one, and there would be a nice dark patch for him to wait it out.

But of course they hardly ever failed. They were almost as durable as he was.

The security guard went by on his ridiculous golf cart at the last point Everett could either continue to the mall or change to pretending he was just leaving it. He pushed the glass door open with a sigh.

"Shopping this time of year sucks, eh buddy?" said a man using the door beside him. Everett noted the man was wearing a suit, just like he was, but with a parka instead of a wool overcoat.

He gave the man a noncommittal smile and made a point of turning a different way once they were inside the mall. Unless the man was heading straight to the toilets, it would have taken too much time, effort, and risk to focus on him.

Everett hated malls. They were sort of all right when they first opened. In the main corridors at least, there had been plenty of places where the only visibility was gained from the illuminated store signs. But starting in the late 1980s, owners started adding skylights and track lighting, until there was hardly a dark corner in the entire building. It gave him a headache just thinking about it. 

And now, just when everything was properly dark for as long as it could be, the night of the actual winter solstice, they put up even more lights, used up even more of that electricity they were always harping about reducing. It was a wonder this lot had any night vision left at all. Total idiotic hyporcisy.

He browsed a floor plan, remembering that now that he was indoors he should take his hands out of his pockets. He found the toilets, wandered down, but found there was a queue right out the door. Hardly the secluded sanctuary he needed. He shrugged and smiled at the last man in line, and headed back to the main level, making a point to study a different floor plan.

He tried the hobby store. It was so packed he couldn't get in.

He tried the pet store, but it wasn't any better. He did note that, worse come to worst, they had rats on sale.

He tried the shoe repair shop. It didn't have any customers, but a gaggle of the proprietor's relatives had dropped by. They were discussing the logistics of Christmas dinner as if planning a military operation, and Everett strode on, shaking his head. Shouldn't their servants be worrying about who was making which dish? Did anyone even have servants anymore?

He paced the corridors, browsing the occasional shop in case he got noticed by security. He tried to pay attention when he reached an exit, focusing on the old, the sick, the weak, but the patterns were too complicated, the crowds too dense. The endless noise and light was making his head throb. He remembered a similarly crisp night when he'd waited under a moonless sky for revellers to make their way to the henge. They'd been within sight of the bonfire before they'd realised that old grandfather wasn't trailing behind them anymore.

At last the clerks commenced the ritual of pulling across the gates and locking up for the night. A disembodied voice announced everyone had to leave the mall. Everett considered hiding in the men's toilets until he remembered that security always checked there, and besides, he might be seen by a different guard on the way out.

At last the mall was nearly empty, but not empty enough for him. He spotted Parka Man exiting, and decided to tail him to his car, just to feel like he'd accomplished something.

Parka Man's car was in the farthest corner of the lot, in the faintly-lit area between two of the lamp towers. He didn't notice Everett until he held up a key in the dim gold light, checking to see if it was the right one for the car.

"You again," said the man. He nodded at Everett's empty hands. "Didn't find any presents after all?"

"Almost," said Everett, and sank his fangs into the man's neck.

#fridayflash : the find

Bridget watched the cars pass by outside the meeting room window. Even though it was only two o'clock in the afternoon, most of them had their headlights on. That only made sense in the dark, foggy weather, but she was relieved to notice that none of the cars had windshield wipers running. She remembered that Luis hated to drive in the rain. Too much time excavating in the more arid regions of Spain, he said. 

One car slowed, paused before the driveway, then eased towards the parking lot. Bridget hurried to the elevators and made her way to the lobby. 

She recognised Luis from his anorak more than from his face, which had been obscured by a beard since the last time they'd met. Indoors or out, the anorak rarely left his shoulders if he was in England. 

"Never seen this place in the dark," he said by way of greeting. "I hope you weren't waiting long." 

"Not at all," said Bridget. "Coffee first, or just head straight downstairs?"

Luis glanced around the lobby with a frown. "I thought downstairs was only for storage?"

"It is," said Bridget. "We found the site when we were expanding the east wing." 

Luis raised his eyebrows. "A major discovery under the Department of Antiquities." He grinned. "This I have to see. Lead the way."

A few minutes later, Bridget was retrieving hard hats and shoe caps for both of them. "The room's in excellent condition," she explained as they donned the protective gear. "It's carved out of solid sandstone, so it should be. We'll need these too," she said, taking some cotton gloves and flashlights from a shelf before locking up the storage closet. 

The end of the corridor was shrouded in plastic sheeting. "No security?" said Luis as Bridget pushed aside the sheeting and unlocked a very plain wooden door. 

"You'll see," said Bridget, opening the door and turning on her flashlight.  

Luis pulled the door shut behind him. "Excellent climate control," he said, waving a free hand through the air.  "But surely the damp will get through that door sooner or later."

"We didn't have a door for the first two days," said Bridget. She pointed at some instruments set on the stone floor with her flashlight. "This room is always 62% humidity, seventeen degrees Celsius."

"A little chilly, then."

"Not to anyone used to living conditions in England during a mini ice age. Seventeen degrees would have been balmy for that climate."

Luis crouched by the instruments on the floor, pointed his flashlight at the door, then back at the instruments again. "It was damp in the corridor," he said. "It's been damp since I walked off the plane." He stood, his knees cracking audibly. "So how are you maintaining the climate?"

"Let's look at the second room," Bridget said, pointing out a short corridor with her flashlight. 

The corridor was only wide enough to allow them to pass through it single file. As Luis stepped across the threshold to the second room, he played his flashlight around the walls. He whistled.  

"How long did  it take you to shelve all these books?" he said. He reached out and stroked the carved edge of a bookshelf. " Nice woodwork too. It fits in the stone recess perfectly." He stiffened and moved his flashlight to shine it on Bridget's face. "But where are the artifacts?"

Bridget squinted against the light.  "This is it. And although it probably doesn't matter, if you're going to be touching things, you should put some gloves on." She stepped out of the range of the flashlight. 

Luis snorted. "Please. These are obvious reproductions." He stroked the spine of a book with a bare hand. "Nice ones, though. I know calf leather when I feel it." He frowned. "It was a long way to travel for a prank, if that's what this is."

"Luis." He turned in the direction of Bridget's voice, the flashlight following his gaze. She'd placed one of the books on the wooden table in the centre of the room, its ornate carvings matching the designs on the bookshelves. "The college building above us was built in 1752. There's no record of this room, and this isn't the sort of thing you could build in secret. The doorway we came through is the only way in or out." She panned the beam from her flashlight slowly around the room. "At minimum this furniture, these books, they should be three hundred years old. But as you say, they're like brand new."

Luis scanned the tops of the shelves and the ceiling. "That doesn't add up." He traced the embossed lettering on the spine of one of the books. "This is what, medieval German, or Old English?"

"Old English. I take it you can't read it."

Luis shook his head and ran his finger along the row of books. "I can read most forms of Latin as if they're modern Spanish, but no." He shone his flashlight around the room. "A trove like this, there must be some Latin titles."

"You'd think so, but there aren't. Just Old English. Now watch this." Bridget lifted a page from the book she'd placed on the table, using just the tip of her cotton-gloved finger. She pinched the corner under her thumb, winced and tore the page from the book.

"No!" Luis stepped towards the table. "Even for a fake, there's some interest in the..." He gaped. The paper wriggled out of Bridget's fingers like a live thing, and flew back into place in the book. A jagged black scar formed along the torn edges, and then, as Luis stared, the scar faded. Bridget flipped the page back and forth. It was as if it had never been torn.

"We've gone over all of these books," said Bridget, her voice trembling, "and all of them are listings of incantations, herbal catalogues, recipes... they're all magical spell books. All of them. And then there's this one."

She turned and pulled a wooden-covered book off the shelf behind her and laid it on the table. Luis watched her flip past pages with drawings of plants and star charts on them, until she came upon two apparently blank facing pages. Bridget turned off her flashlight and stepped away from the table.

Luis's eyes widened as a blue glow grew from the pages, and a mirror-imaged, but otherwise perfectly formed, calligraphic script formed across the parchment.

 

#fridayflash : it warned us

It starts like this: one Wednesday afternoon apropos of nothing in particular, the centre vending machine of the bank of three in the shopping mall's bus terminal starts beeping. The beeps are loud and frequent, one every half a second, and a red light nobody noticed before flashes in time. 

This is the vending machine people use the most. There are two reasons for this. For one, the device has the greatest assortment of food items which could, in a desperate moment between bus transfers, become a makeshift meal. For another, it's the only machine in the terminal which can ingest paper bills and spit out change, something both the transit workers in the ticket booths and the lady at the lottery kiosk upstairs both refuse to do. 

People hurry up to the vending machine, fivers in hand, and groan when they realise the beeping they heard is coming from it. 

A man in a suit and overcoat shrugs and pushes his money inside anyhow. The machine rewards him with a prompt to select some junk food from its innards. He leaves with a chocolate bar and a handful of change. 

After the man's example, there is a steady stream of people using the machine.  Nearly all of them arrive as a previous customer is showing up. If there's a gap, the teenagers loitering at the doors are more than happy to inform the next person, though they're not very polite about it. 

"You should have time to get some candy before the thing explodes," they say. Or, "It does that when it sees a fat person's gonna buy more candy. Take the hint, bitch!"

Eventually, the last bus for the night leaves. The transit workers kick out the teenagers and lock up. They finish counting the tills and go home. The last one out turns off most of the lights. As she passes the bank of vending machines, she stops, peers, checks the gap between the wall and the backs of the machines, and gets on her hands and knees in front  the centre one, which is still beeping and flashing. Her arm is just long enough to reach under and behind the machine to unplug it. She gets up and goes to the ticket booth, where she writes a note to the morning shift.

In an attack ship hidden behind the moon, the Zorguan intelligence commander slams five tentacles into the control panel. "Who planted that observer equipment and didn't install an independent power supply? We need at least one planet rotation to get complete data."

"Never mind that,"  says the second in command, "According to the advance reports, that sound and that coloured light mean danger in their culture. But hundreds of people walked by and ignored it, and tens more used the machine."

"They're either very brave or very stupid," chimes in the admiral, waggling a tentacle. "Probably both. I'm calling it. Don't worry about completing the intelligence collection cycle. The only thing to do with a race like that is dematerialise them from orbit."

#fridayflash : security

"You have got to be freaking kidding me."

Susan glanced up from her workstation. "They don't," she said, "and they aren't."

"We won't be able to get in or out without biometrics and, a, a... what the hell is a 'recorded gesture', anyhow?" Tabitha glanced around to make sure none of their co-workers were in sight, then made a series of rude hand signs. "Like that?"

Susan shook her head. "You have to read on to the next paragraph. It's like the swipe key on your phone. You draw a pattern, connecting the dots in a certain way."

Tabitha's face cleared. "So I can just do a straight line down the middle," she said. "Like flipping the scanner the bird every time I go through the door."

"Read on," said Susan. "It has to be a continuous line that touches at least three dots in each column, and no basic zigzags allowed."

"Half the office is going to either lock themselves out, or in."

"Yup." Susan sipped her coffee and touched the Hammer of Thor pendant hanging from the silver necklace she always wore.

"You acting all nonchalant about it is really pissing me off, you know."

"If it mattered what we thought about it, they would have asked us first."

"It figures they'd announce it on a Friday."

"Oh come on." Susan leaned over to Tabitha's cubicle and patted her arm. "Free coffee and doughnuts on Monday. It's not all bad."

Monday morning they stood in a queue in the elevator lobby while two managers presided over the recording of the biometric data and the gesture. An administrative assistant walked up and down the line, doling out coffee, doughnuts, and jokes as people fidgeted.

The staff had been told to show up no earlier than eight-thirty. Most people had arrived at eight forty-five, trying to beat the rush, but not be first in line either.

It was now nine-thirty, and only three people had completed the recording. The queue lined the entire circumference of the elevator lobby, ending ourobouros-like right beside the scanner. Several people had had to leave and re-join the line as their bladders succumbed to the effects of the coffee.

The admin assistant nervously handed her best work friend some money and begged her to go get more coffee and doughnuts. One of the managers had left the scanner and was polling staff, asking who had meetings first so they could get inside and attend them.

Tabitha made a lot of faces at Susan, but didn't dare say anything with the rest of the office within earshot.

Martin, the next person in front of them, finally recorded a gesture he could execute twice in a row. The door clicked open, and he scurried in.

Susan went next, after a quick nudge in the ribs from Tabitha. She smiled and held her head perfectly still as lasers scanned first one retina, then the other. The lasers left her seeing spots, but she cheerfully blinked them away and quickly repeated the gesture she'd planned, twice.

"That's the way it's done!" said the manager, beaming. "I hope everyone else goes this quickly."

"I got to learn from the people ahead of me in line," Susan said, with a modest glance downwards as she slipped through the door.

She unlocked her desk drawer, retrieved her laptop, and fingered her Thor pendant as she waited for the computer to boot up. Down the corridor, the door clicked open and let Tabitha into the office.

"It's going faster now," she announced as she sat down at her desk. Susan just smiled and nodded a reply.

She'd worked all weekend on the particular set of runes she'd used for her gesture. If the company was going to introduce new rituals to the office, so was she.