,

In The Machine

I’m a little late posting this story — it’s been a busy week. But it’s still Friday and so I’m considering it on time. You may have gathered from my site that I both write and draw. My main occupation at the moment is as an illustrator. So this science fiction short story has a taste of verisimilitude to it, but lots of pure fantasy as well. Can an artist get too caught up in their work? Read on to find out.

The artist knows what he wants to capture. The artist knows the ebb and flow of life, can feel it through his practised eye and a steady hand.

What a load of bullshit. I get paid for what I do. I’m a professional artist. But you know what? Every fucking time is like the first time. You’re scared. You’re a fraud. How is it they pay you to do this? Why don’t they get someone who knows what they’re doing?

But they hire me. So they get me. And they seem pleased. Who can say why? Right, right, I should be happy and realize that I am skilled. I suppose so. I mean, sure, it rings of truth and logic but deep inside it doesn’t resonate. But I’m trying.

Like today. This guy dropped off these photos. Usually, I do individuals, portraits. Or a group, like a family. I work in watercolour. Direct to watercolour, no pencil here. I take photos and I filter it through my brain and eye and hand and come out with… something. Art is like seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Do we gain such a deep perspective on the world in that action? Some do, some don’t. I guess we do it for ourselves and, if someone else does enjoy it, then all the better.

And they pay. I gotta eat.

Today I’m eating something different. These photos are not your usual fare. And the guy, he was the oddest little fellow I’ve ever seen to be quite honest. He wore a heavy trench coat and a wide hat, all grey. Now that I think of it his skin was a little grey too. Perhaps he has some weird skin condition, can’t be out in the light. Why else would he be wearing that get up when it’s 25 C and sunny? Fear of the sun, has to be. Quite the small guy too, fragile it seemed. And big eyes.

Anyway, these pics he gave me to go by… very abstract stuff. Symbols of some kind, like ancient runes or cuneiform. Whatever, it’s something different. Not the usual girlfriend, mother or, hell, even mistress. I don’t ask questions. I only paint. Today it’s abstract. I can deal with that.

What have we got? A stack of sixty Polaroids; I kid you not. Who shoots Polaroids anymore, aside from your vintage shop hunting, retro hipster in suspenders? And that was definitely not this scrawny twerp. Again, who cares. It’s money.

So sixty little symbols, all black on a white background. Some are solid, some thin lines enclosing shapes. One is an open rectangle with a dash, one a solid rectangle with an open circle. Others are triangles, open and closed. Decahedrons even. Lots of sine wave looking stuff. Stuff I haven’t seen since high school math. Other stuff I’ve never seen. The only instruction he gave me, aside from reproducing them in black on white — I use only the best premium, pre-stretched watercolour paper so no problem there — was to fill the open shapes with the primary colours. He was very insistent on that. It couldn’t be any blue or red or green. It had to be the average spectrum colours. I tried to explain to him that paint doesn’t work like that, that it’s subtractive, not additive. He told me to get as close as I could. I said, of course, that I would. I don’t question, I do the work. Keeps me in Cheetos.

And a damn load of Cheetos too. This job is paying fifty times, yes fifty, more than any usual gig. He said he needed it ASAP and wanted me to cancel my other gigs. I quoted a crazy price and, crazier still, he agreed. It was so much that I made the guy pay half up front. He didn’t blink. And he paid in cash. Didn’t even want a receipt. Sorry, Mr Taxman.

I’ve got my clean water, my brushes, my palette and my tubes of Cotman paint. So no more fucking around, let’s dig in. To be honest it’s a God damn easy job. Aside from that colour matching shit. But even that’s not bad. I’ve got a prism and it’s a sunny day. I’ll match as best as I can. Watercolour is nice like that too, being transparent. It’s luminous. But, yeah, an easy job. Reproduce a bunch of simple shapes.

I asked him was there any particular order, any particular arrangement. He told me, in his little squeaky voice… come to think of it that voice was rather odd, almost artificial. High and yet gravelly. Whatever, bundled up like that he probably had a cold. Didn’t want to shake hands either. That explains it then. Whatever. Anyway, he told me to do what felt right to me. Those were his exact words, whatever felt right. So, let’s see what feels right.

I shuffle the thick Polaroids so I’ll be surprised and lay them on the desk next to my easel. The top one is a wavy set of lines with a few dots, open all around them. I’ve already determined that I’m going to do the colours last. I mix a nice thick black in my palette, lots of it too; there are a lot of shapes. I take my liner brush, a nice thin Kolinsky sable hair job, and dig in.

Lines and dots, a swish here, a flick there. By the third photo, I’m into the zone, the groove, the flow state. Whatever name doesn’t matter. Time slips and falls away. It’s a marvellous experience. When I was a kid, sketching super-heroes and spaceships with a mechanical pencil, this feeling scared me. I stopped drawing one time and the room was buzzing. Only it wasn’t the room. It was a bee outside. Everything was silence except for that sound. Every breath I took, too, pounded in my ears. All my senses were so hyper-aware. It was amazing but, like I say, scary if you don’t know what it is. So I stopped drawing and moved around, trying to find someone to talk to. But no one was home and it took minutes to shake myself out of that state.

Now I fight to return to it every day. Some days it comes, some days it doesn’t.

Today is a good day. Each one is easier than the last. I don’t stop to think of where to put them. I just know. Before I know it I’m on the last symbol. Only they aren’t symbols any longer. They’re pieces of a puzzle that makes sense now. How is it I didn’t see it before? This rectangle fits into this set of dots, like the teeth on gears. And this set of lines flows into that set of lines. It’s beautiful.

The black on white is complete. I step back to inspect and, unbidden, a tear emerges from the corner of my eye and slips over the lid and down my cheek. My senses so engaged, so focused, I can feel its salty track until it runs into the corner of my mouth. Why? What is happening to me? I am elated, joyous. These pieces are the story of life, of everything.

I force myself, no, that’s wrong, there is no force now, no choice. I am compelled to continue. The colours. I set up the prism so that its rainbow pattern of split white light spreads across the wall behind my easel and desk.

The colours are streaks of brilliance. My God, isn’t the world amazing? All day, every day we live in this world of light rays, photons dancing on everything. And yet we don’t see the palette of nature, painting each and every object. Of course objects, trees, water, whatever, none of it has colour. The colour comes from what they reflect back from that white light. Everything has its own wavelength. The harmony, the mathematical symphony of physics astounds me. I never understood it before and now it seems so simple, so natural.

Mixing the colours is not a chore or task, it’s an honour. Like some religious sacrifice. I dip a large flat brush into one of the thin, watery pools on the palette. I let my feelings take over and put reds and blue and greens all over the image of the machine.

For that is what it is. A machine. I can see it now. I can almost see it moving. With each dab of paint, it comes into focus more. That gear, it is a gear, yes, wants to strike that other one, there. And that piston wants to thrust in that engine over there. I add the last spot of colour. I clean my brush and return it to its spot in the jar where I keep them.

Then I step back once more. The machine is alive now. And not metaphorically either. It’s actually moving. The shapes, those symbols, those gears and circuits and pistons are moving. Electrons are flowing down black pathways and nanotechnological machines, atoms in the elements of the pigments, are executing instructions of some kind. How do I know this? How is this happening?

The canvas is alive. It can’t be. But it is. Am I going crazy?

New colours are forming now as the primaries mix and flow and move through the machine. The whole palette is alive there now — secondaries and tertiaries slide and shift as I watch. What purpose can there be for such a machine? And the little grey man, what of him? What of everything?

An artist, that’s all I’ve ever been. Once I thought I could have been a damn good physicist. But that dream was dead on arrival. No funds for college. So I worked. And discovered joy in my brushes. And joy it was, I had no regrets. But maybe all roads lead to the same place eventually. Maybe science is art is life.

The watercolour paper is buckling. No, it’s melting in on itself, the colours receding, deepening into the easel behind. But not the easel, it’s a tunnel, a hole. I step to the side and look at the easel in profile.

It is fine, as it should be. I can look at its flat back and all is wood and lacquer. There is no hole punching through it, no distortion in its flatness.

But, returning to view the machine on the paper, the hole has increased and widened. The machine is moving and working, whatever that work is. The paper is large, three feet by three feet, the size the little grey man selected. And I can feel a pull now. What is that?

I want to move away from that tug and yet I want to leap into the painting too. I step toward it a little. The pull increases. The machine on the paper has moved now, formed a perfect circle, a cylinder reaching into a void. The centre of that void is pure black. The paint is pulsating, racing around the perimeter of the cylinder. It’s changing colour as it passes through various components. Those machine components were only pigment on paper moments ago.

I step toward it again. The pull is stronger still and increasing.

Is this the bee all over again? Has something snapped in my brain? Has all the isolation and days and days of seeking the flow state stretched something in my head until it snapped?

But it doesn’t feel wrong, it doesn’t feel bad. So I step forward again. Now my hands are resting on the easel, holding myself against that interminable tug. Is it gravity? What is the blackness in the middle of that swirling machine? Is it a black hole, sucking me to oblivion? Or to somewhere else?

The grey man was very short. His eyes were very big. He asked strange questions too. Was I married. Did I have family close by, or at all. Did I have close friends. I assumed he was just making conversation and yet… Now they seem very personal questions. Why hadn’t they seemed so at the time? Those eyes were very big. Big as saucers. They weren’t human eyes.

What have I painted? What will become of me?

The pull is getting stronger. My pelvis is being pressed against the edge of the table and I have to fight to keep my head out of that hole. My eyes are at its edge now. The lights of the machine are flying in my peripheral vision, faster and faster.

What is in that blackness? I have to find out.

Still gripping the edge of the easel I raise one foot and brace it against the edge of the table. I do the same with the other. If the easel was the floor — and with this artificial gravity tugging at me it could be — I’d be squat above it. All I have to do is jump in, let go and see what happens.

I take one last look around my studio. I live here. I eat here. I paint here. I am alone here, alone with memories of those I have loved and lost. Of lives I could have lived. I wasn’t unhappy but I was unfulfilled. There is nothing to lose. And so much to gain. Thank you, Mr Grey.

I leap into the machine, fitting easily into the large sheet of watercolour paper. Shifting lights and lines of the machine I have created from Mr Grey’s blueprint pass by. I am in my painting, in the machine. The blackness approaches.

What a dream is life. A waking dream of colour and light.

Finally, something new.

,

The Professor’s Assistant

This week’s tale is a horror short story about a young university student. He just wants an A in organic chemistry. He might get more than he bargained for. Enjoy!

The old man looked great. He was flying across the floor, spurting out chemistry theory like it was music. Professor Millard seemed to go through phases like that. Last month he had looked like he was about to die. He had been pale and his hair was wispy and limp. But then, the next class he had looked twenty years younger. Strangest thing.

Perhaps his long hours doing research caught up with him sometimes. I didn’t know. What I did know was that I needed an A in his organic chemistry class. But it seemed there might be an opening that could help me out in that department. I didn’t see Derek, his TA, around anywhere. Professor Millard might need a new assistant.

When the class ended I approached the professor. He turned his bright grey eyes on me, smiling wide. “Mr. Welsh, how are we this evening?”

“I’m very good, professor,” I said.

“Good, good. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I notice that Derek is not here today. Is he ill?”

“Ill?” he asked, seeming perplexed. He shook his head then, in an almost theatrical manner. “No, no, not ill. Gone on to better things, my boy.” He paused and looked me up and down. “Why? Are you looking to help out?”

“Yes, sir, I’d like that very much,” I said.

Though he smiled again then I didn’t like it. It was genial enough but there was something about it, something off. But I put it out of my head and shook his offered hand.

“Excellent. Now, aside from TA duties I sometimes need help in the lab. Are you up for that?”

“Yes, sir, some practical experience sounds great.”

“Grand! Okay, I’ll email you the schedule. Good evening!” he said as he patted me on the back, turned and walked out of the lecture hall.

I stood there, unsure if I had made a good decision. There was something odd about the man. But he was a university professor, eccentricity kind of came with the position.

It was a couple of days before I received Dr. Millard’s email. I checked my phone when I woke that morning and saw that he had written me overnight. He had sent the email at 3 AM. The man liked to work late.

Attached to the email was a PDF with the TA and lab schedules. The TA slots were all evening classes. It dawned on me then that the other two classes I had done with the professor had also been in the evening. The lab schedule was the most surprising of all. Almost every weeknight I was scheduled to assist from 10 PM to 2 AM. For an unpaid position, it was quite a lot to ask.

But I needed that A. And I didn’t have any classes early in the morning — I liked to sleep in. The semester was also half-over. So, less than a couple of months of late nights. I could handle it to get in the professor’s good graces.

The next few weeks were very interesting. The TA duties — showing up and answering students’ questions, grading papers — were fine and forced me to be on the top of my game. That alone was great for my own grades.

But the lab sessions were bizarre. Dr. Millard knew his chemistry, there was no doubt about that. He moved around the lab with a passion, working feverishly and tirelessly. My eyes would start to get heavy as 2 AM approached but his still shone with a vigour that far outstripped his age. He was like a man on a mission.

“Come on now, lad, plenty of time to sleep later,” he would say. Sometimes he would follow it by clasping me on the shoulder, rather forcefully too. Or, “It’s life or death, boy,” and would laugh it off, almost cackling. He had eccentricities in abundance. Or so I thought then.

His lab work, the little he would tell me about it, centred around researching some rare blood condition. I assumed he was working with the med school of the university on some cutting-edge research. It was, I would find out, very unique research.

“What illness are you studying again, professor?” I asked one evening, as I had on several others. I knew he would dodge the question but I persisted, hoping to break down his armour.

I had been working for the professor for a little over a month at that point. In those weeks his haggard appearance had returned, day-by-day. It was very strange. Yet, his eye for detail and his focus didn’t diminish. But his skin had lost the glow of life and become a sickly yellow, almost grey in places. And dark circles surrounded his sunken, yellow eyes. He looked shrunken in his clothing and his hair was thin and dead-looking. He seemed like someone suffering from malnutrition, or a vitamin deficiency.

“It’s very rare, I’m sure you’ve never heard of it before,” he said. He seemed a little annoyed but I couldn’t be sure if it had anything to do with my question. As his haggardness had grown his irritability had grown with it.

“But I would like to know, nonetheless,” I said, pressing him. I had the sinking suspicion that he was suffering from this disease himself. That would explain why he was so driven. But his own illness went in cycles so my hypothesis didn’t make any sense.

The professor stopped his work and sighed. “We are running out of time, boy.” He had taken to calling me boy and lad more often. “You are running out of time.” Alarm rang in my head for a second. What did that mean? But, perhaps sensing my concern, he added, “The semester will soon be over. I’ll have to train a new assistant.”

“I’m sorry professor, you’re right. Let’s focus on the work.”

“Good lad,” he said, patting me on the shoulder with his bony hand.

I stole a glance as he removed his hand. The bones were clearly visible — all the muscle and fat seemed to have melted away. The man was like a walking cadaver. I didn’t know how he managed to stay on his feet.

A couple nights later we had made great strides in our work. The professor seemed jubilant, giddy even. He removed a test tube of blood from the centrifuge and held it up to his yellow eye.

“This is it, lad. This is it,” he said.

It, sir? Your research is complete?” I asked.

He shrugged in his lab coat, lifting shoulders that were thin and emaciated. “Who can say? Only one way to find out.” Then, without further preamble or any sign that what he was doing was outside of all normal lab etiquette — Christ, outside of all normal human etiquette — he lifted the test tube to his lips and downed the modified blood inside.

I stood, transfixed and horrified. No words came and no muscles moved. What the hell?

When the vial was empty the professor tapped a skinny finger against the bottom, trying to get every last drop. I even saw his tongue flick out and draw along the glass edge. Then he licked his lips.

“Good, very good,” he said, as if he had downed a shot of tequila. No, more like he had finished a fantastic appetizer at a fancy restaurant.

What could I say? I felt as if I had walked in on someone having sex. No, as if I had walked in on someone engaged in bestiality. This was obscene, unnatural.

“Professor?” I finally managed to ask.

“Oh, crap,” he said, looking at me and shaking his head. He smiled that same smile, genial but altogether hideous as well. “I had plum forgot about you, lad.” He looked me over then, bringing those yellow eyes from my shoes all the way up to the tip of my head. I felt like prey. “No worries, no worries. You’re okay. Now.”

“Now?” I asked. I felt very vulnerable, like I had seen some taboo ritual and would not be allowed to live.

He held the vial up and shook it between his fingers. “This little beauty. I’m better already.”

“I’m not sure I see what any of that has to do with me?” I asked.

He laughed and shook his head. “Everything, lad, everything to do with you. But, as I said, you’re alri… arrrggg,” he doubled over, dropping the test tube. It hit the floor and shattered. He clutched his midsection, and crouched to the floor, steadying himself with one hand.

“Are you okay, professor?” I asked, rushing toward him. Though, remembering the last few minutes, I stopped before I reached him. I hung back, watching.

“Mother of Lucifer!” He cried out. “No, I’m not okay. It didn’t work. Damn it!” He stood again, leaning his thin form against the edge of the counter-top for support. “Not okay at all.”

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked. Though, even as I spoke, I backed away. The door was behind me. I only had to reach it. Then I could run. I didn’t even know what I was running from but some deeply buried instinct came to life in me then. I knew I wasn’t safe.

“Oh, yes, actually,” he said, lifting his head a little to look over at me. “I will be okay. And you will help. Though I am sorry.”

I continued my backward shuffle, increasing the pace little-by-little. “Sorry?” I asked.

“You’re not going to scream are you?” he asked, that same annoyance entering his voice again. “Derek, he screamed and screamed. It was quite unsettling. It’s not like I want to do this, you see? I’m a victim here too.” The professor pushed himself away from the counter and started toward me.

“Please,” I said. “Please.”

“It’ll be quick, lad. Okay?” He shook his head. “No, that’s a lie. It won’t be quick. And, as I understand it, it’ll hurt like hell. But then, then it’ll all be over.”

He continued toward me, closer and closer, as I continued backing, closer and closer to the door. Whatever he was, the man was weak, frail. There was no way he could keep up with me, a fit young man. Was there? I decided to chance it.

I turned and flung myself toward the door, breaking into a sprint. My hand was out, ready to push against the handle. But I never made it.

The professor was frail but not, it seemed, weak. I felt cold, bony fingers around my neck, plucking me from my escape. That strong grip stopped me in my tracks. A swish of white lab coat shot by in my peripheral vision as the man’s leg swiped my own out from underneath me.

Then the professor was atop me, glaring down into my eyes with his own sunken yellow ones. He had me pinned, his knees sat on my forearms and his feet were on my thighs. There was enormous weight in his frail body. An inhuman weight.

“Please,” I mumbled again, knowing it would do no good.

“I wish I could, boy, I do. But this is life or death, you see. And I try, every time I try. But none of you has been able to help in any other way. No assistant has been able to do more. But this,” he grinned, “this is helpful. It buys me time you see, time to keep trying. Someday I’ll find the cure. So, there you go, have some solace in the fact that you’re helping science. You know, in the long run.”

He smiled again then, showing his teeth. Two of them, the incisors, were more prominent than the others. How had I never noticed that before? They protruded almost to his lower lip. Those hideous fangs were the second last thing I ever saw. In the next instant — he moved so fast — those teeth were in my neck. Hot blood ran down my skin, but the rest of my body was going cold.

I could hear the professor drinking then. My blood ran into his mouth and he drank it like water. My eyes focused on the rectangular patterns of lights and metal bars in the lab ceiling. That was the last thing I saw as my vision started to blur. Soon there was darkness. And yet the sucking, and the horrible sound that accompanied it, continued.

Finally, he stopped and stood.

I wasn’t dead. I knew I soon would be, yes, but even drained I was hanging on. And the professor’s words carried to me as my brain wound down.

“How many will it take?” Though I couldn’t see him I knew he was looking down at my crumpled body. “How many lives to save my only, pitiful body?” He started to walk away, my existence discarded like my body. “Now, where did I put that list of potential assistants?”

Then all was black. The cold arms of Death embraced me.

I could not have been more amazed when I again opened my eyes. Had it been hours? Days? I was still laying on the floor for the grated ceiling with its panels and lights was still there. But now it looked different.

The shapes seemed to have a halo about them, a shifting edge that never settled. And colours, once vibrant and rich now shimmered as if alive. Yet, at the same time, they were dull and lifeless. It was a world of contradictions. I was alive, obviously, though I felt dead.

“You’ll get used to it,” a voice said from nearby. It was a voice I knew but couldn’t place. Like my eyes, my ears now seemed to hear differently. Was it better? Maybe. But there was something missing in it as well.

With difficulty — everything was very sore — I raised myself up to sitting. Turning my aching head I saw the owner of the voice. He was mopping my own blood off the floor.

“Derek?!” I asked, confused.

He smiled. “Hey, buddy. Welcome to the graveyard shift.”

I got to my feet and almost fell over again. Some of it was weakness but most of it was what I saw as I glanced around the room. I managed to lean against one of the lab benches for support. “What the hell?!”

Four other young people were working in the lab. Their skin was pale and drawn; only a semblance of life remained. A couple of them were mixing chemicals, one was washing beakers while the last sat with a notebook. They all turned at my exclamation. They smiled back, shook their heads and then returned to their work.

I knew them, not personally, but had asked questions of them at one time or another while attending one of Professor Millard’s classes. They had all been his TA at some point.

And now? Now they were like me. No. I was like them: undead.

,

A Lone

So, Flash Fiction Fridays have turned into Short Story Fridays but I’m good with that. I hope you’ve been enjoying these stories as I have several more written already and they’ll be up here in the coming weeks. This week’s story is a science fiction tale about a couple and the impact advancing technology is having on their relationship. What will our relationships look like once computer telepathy and brain-to-brain communication become as common as smartphones? And, no, that’s not a typo in the title.

If you like this story you can also read some of the previous stories: Rufus Snarblax, Garbage Day and Earthrise.

“I hate you sometimes!”

Trista hadn’t meant it, she never did. But the words were out there now. And, as always, that sad don’t you love me look on Sarah’s face made her insides churn. Sarah didn’t say anything though, only turned and retreated, like a wounded animal.

“Sarah, baby, I’m sorry!” The slamming door down the hallway was the only response. “Fuck,” Trista muttered, fuming with frustration at her own stupidity. She wanted to lash out, wanted to kick something. Not really though, she knew that. She only wanted an outlet for her emotions. Instead, she sank into the couch, wishing it would swallow her.

What had started the fight anyway? She couldn’t even remember. Something about money. Maybe. Or about Sarah’s PDD addiction. Of course, she wasn’t alone in that, nearly everyone was addicted to them. Did that make it okay though? Trista’s mother had always said: If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you? The fact that she had often answered yes was beside the point now.

It didn’t matter what the cause was this particular time. They didn’t communicate well. They both knew that. That was the crux of it. And yet they did love each other.

Time passed. Trista sat there, wallowing, yes, self-pitying, yes, but also trying to clear her mind, trying to find a solution. None came to her.

She had no idea that Sarah was doing the same. The difference was that Sarah had a solution.

The bedroom door opened, creaking — Trista needed to oil that. Though, at that moment, she was happy for the warning. She didn’t look up, only listened as Sarah’s feet padded down the hallway and into the living room.

“Can we talk now… without shouting?” Sarah asked.

Trista nodded. “I’d like that, yes.”

Sarah came and sat on the couch, but not exactly next to Trista. All either of them wanted was to throw their arms around the other, to find solace and strength in togetherness. And yet neither wanted to be the first, neither wanted to show the weakness they both felt.

“I’m sorry,” Trista said, still looking at her own knees.

“I know you are, and I know,” Sarah sighed hard, “I know you didn’t mean it. But, it still hurts, you know?”

Trista nodded. “What can we do? I don’t like fighting with you.”

“I know that too. When we do I feel completely alone. But, there is something we can do about that.”

“Oh?” Trista had no idea where she was going with this.

“Everyone is doing it now,” Sarah said.

“Doing what?”

“Meshing.”

That one word changed the conversation. Trista felt her blood begin to boil again. “Everyone is not doing it.”

Sarah, ignoring the comment, didn’t look at Trista, kept looking straight ahead. “They even have a word now for those who haven’t done it. Lones.”

“Is it that bad to be alone sometimes?” Trista asked.

“You don’t want me to know all of you?” Sarah asked in reply.

“No,” Trista said, then added, “I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“Katie knew you’d say that. She thinks you’re scared.”

Trista snorted. “Katie isn’t even real.”

“Yes, she is!” Sarah snapped back. “The UN ruled last month that she was sentient.”

“No, it didn’t,” Trista said. “It ruled that the version running on Jeddie’s servers, the original, full-blown version in a lab, had the potential for sentience. The version you access is only watered-down, dummy AI.”

“It is not!”

“Look,” Trista said, “I just don’t want to. It’s good to be alone sometimes.”

“Are you scared of getting plugged?”

“No. Just leave it.”

“No, this is important to me.” Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. “Everyone else I know has it now. You’re — we’re both — going to get left behind. Look at Steve! He and Michelle got it last week. He told me it was amazing, like sex for your brain.” Sarah paused, thinking, trying to come up with the right argument. Trista worked with AI every day, this shouldn’t be a hard sell. Or it was hard because she knew too much about it. Sarah pushed that thought out of her mind. “Transhumans are out there now. The plugs let us mesh with each other but it also makes it easier to interface with, well, everything!”

“So? I see this shit every damn day. Decades now! When I was a little girl my parents didn’t let me have a smartphone. And you know what? Thank God! I remember seeing people, heads down, not looking at each other, only half-watching what they were doing. At least we got away from that. But now it’s happening again.”

Sarah was losing; she even felt Trista had a point. She knew she had a problem when it came to her PDD. But, damn it, she didn’t want to get left behind. “How can knowing each other better, more than we ever could have before, be a bad thing?”

“I didn’t say that would be a bad thing,” Trista said, sighing. She ran her fingers through her long hair, pushing it away from where it fell in front of her face.

She looked at Sarah then, for the first time since her wife had come back from the bedroom. The curve of her chin, the little ears, the slight upturn in her nose — all the little, unique things that she loved.

“Maybe,” Trista said, “the mystery is good.”

“Do you have something to hide, is that it?” Sarah asked, turning now to look into Trista’s eyes, daring her to back away, to prove her right.

Trista laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Sarah asked. “Are you making fun of me?”

“No, baby, no!” She reached out a hand and placed it on Sarah’s knee. “I have nothing to hide from you.” Trista had never said anything truer in her life.

“Then what is it? We’re going to get left behind.”

“Look, it’s never too late. The technology is still new now too — wait a year or two and it’ll be better. And foolproof. I still hear some scary things. Anyway, for now, I’d like to just be me. This,” Trista pointed back and forth between herself and Sarah, “me and you, like it is, that’s okay how it is. It’s not broken. We just need to learn to talk to each other. No Katies, no PDDs, just us. Like humans have been doing for thousands of years.”

“But you’ll think about it though?” Sarah asked. She wasn’t convinced, wasn’t giving up yet.

“I have thought about it, and will continue to do so, yes. Is that okay?”

“Sure, I guess.”

Trista pushed down the frustration that was rising again. How could she get it across? “Look, I’m me. You’re you.”

“Duh.”

“Obvious, yes, sure. But what am I? I’m a collection of my thoughts, my feelings, my experiences.”

“Right, again, obvious.”

“Is it though? They are me. If we mesh, then what? Some of our thoughts merge and mingle. You get some of my memories, I get some of yours. Am I still me? Or am I partly you then?”

“Is that so bad?”

“No. Maybe.”

“Maybe?” Sarah asked, her voice rising a little.

“I just want to be me right now. I want to be the me that loves you, the me that knows who I am. Maybe, sure, down the road. But I’m afraid, yes, there, I said it. I’m afraid. But not of getting plugged, not of the process. I’m afraid of losing who I am.”

“I… I guess I can understand that,” Sarah said. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.”

“It can’t be undone either. Once the patterns are in our heads they’re a part of us. And then part of me resides in you — which, sounds nice, I grant you — but are you then less, or more? You’re you, Sarah, my wife, my everything.” She took Sarah’s hands in her own. “You already have all of me. And I want you. Unique, amazing you.”

Sarah squeezed the hands that were always there, always ready to embrace her, to keep her safe. They were all that she needed. They were enough, for now.

,

Earthrise

 

This week’s short story, Earthrise, is quite short — around 600 words. It’s a science fiction snapshot, a brief look into one woman’s journey to fulfil a lifelong dream.

I hope you enjoy it.

It would come up again soon, or rather they would come to it.

From her position in the observation lounge, Tess could see the grey, cratered surface of the Moon rolling by below. Beyond it was only the blackness of space.

For now.

She looked at the timer on her Personal Digital Device — though to her it was a pid, a PDD. It had been one hour and seventeen minutes since the last one. One more minute to go.

Her breath started coming faster, in anticipation. She forced it to slow down. Inhaling deeply, she held it a moment. Then she exhaled slower still, letting the carbon dioxide slip from her lungs.

The scrubbers would take it soon enough. She didn’t care how they worked but she had been forced to learn a little about them before she left Earth. Everyone, even the tourists, aboard Pandia Station had to know a bit about how everything worked, in case anything went wrong.

Tess had sat through the lessons, had studied at night even, to ensure that she could be right here at this moment. And she was here, orbiting the Moon on this station, looking out the observation lounge window. Looking at the magnificence now coming into view.

Earthrise.

It had been many days and she had seen it many times but it never failed to leave her breathless and with tears in her eyes.

The blue of the oceans.

The green, brown and white of the land masses.

The wispy, translucent clouds and the thick alabaster clouds.

Sometimes the Earth was a seemingly perfect circle, lit by the Sun, far behind the Moon. At other times it hung there like a sculpture, a floating semi-circle swallowed by black behind the terminator. Black, that is, except for the brilliance of the artificial lights that dotted it.

All that had ever been, all the stories of every human ever born took place on that pale blue dot. Sagan was on her mind a lot as she spun around the moon, watching the earthrise again and again.

Soon enough she would be back there, on the surface of her home. The insurance money had, of course, only purchased her so much time. She would soon be back where there was no perspective. Back where the ants couldn’t see the anthill.

Would she lose what she had learned? No, she was determined not to do so.

And what would she do then?

Tess pushed the thought from her mind and focused on the Earth, now fully risen above the sterile rim of its satellite. It swam through the void, through the vacuum, through the eternal night of space.

North America was clearly visible. Somewhere down there was her house. No, Tess corrected herself, not hers any longer. Now it belonged to a mister and mister Stevens-Smith. She hoped they would be very happy there. As she had once been. Likewise, her car was driving someone else around now; she recalled that his name was Khalid. She sent happy thoughts to him as well.

For she was happy right now and wanted everyone else to be as well. Would she be in a week, with her feet back on solid ground? Time would tell.

There would be no money left. Not even enough to get her to her sister’s house from the spaceport. But she had calculated well and had already purchased the transfer.

Bill had always commented on her foresight.

Her sister would be glad to see her, at first. Tess would get a job and start over. Alone. But it was okay. They had had their time together. She was grateful for those years, tears and all.

For now, she would watch the earthrise. Again and again. For as long as she had.

Another one was coming in an hour and eighteen minutes.

Urban Sketching at the Etsy Holiday Market

Once upon a time, I used to sketch from life often. The last few years it has fallen by the wayside. That is something I’m hoping to change. So this past weekend my wife and I went to the Etsy Holiday Market at Atlantic Place here in St. John’s. She wanted to do some shopping and I wanted to do some urban sketching.

Being a little rusty I wanted to warm up before I got to the event. So, on the bus ride down I surreptitiously sketched a couple other riders in a Pocket Portrait Handbook Travelogue Journal. People on the bus, or planes or trains, are pretty good subjects. You know they’ll be there for at least a little while and new subjects are always arriving. I did these two sketches with a fountain pen using water-soluble ink. I then went over them immediately with a water brush to add some tone. Finally, I added the colours once I got home in Clip Studio Paint EX.

Once we arrived at the event I found a spot near the windows and got to work. I remember sketching like this being fun and, sometimes at least, almost effortless. Today it felt forced and awkward. But like any skill you have to power through and keep at it. I knew I was a little rusty so the feeling wasn’t unexpected.

In case anyone is wondering, I did the following two sketches in a Handbook Grand Portrait Watercolor Journal. It’s the one I’m using in the above photo. I ordered mine on Amazon.ca; you can’t buy them locally as far as I know. The watercolours are a Cotman set I picked up a few years back at Michaels.

I did this first sketch in pencil and then finalized it with a ballpoint pen. Little spots of darker shadow were added with a Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Finally, I added watercolours.

In this second sketch, I wanted to try something a bit different. After doing a quick sketch in pencil I went back to my fountain pen with the water-soluble ink. Like with the bus sketches I then went over it with a water brush to add tone. I added the colour in this sketch later, at home, using Ray Frenden‘s watercolour brushes in Clip Studio Paint EX.

While completing the second sketch some friends of ours arrived. After chatting for a bit we went to Afghan Restaurant for lunch and finished out the afternoon with a visit to Fixed. I had the vegan pumpkin muffin (which you usually have to ask for) and a peppermint tea.

It was a fun day and I’m glad I got some sketching done. I’m definitely going to try and make it a more regular activity. As I read somewhere (maybe the Famous Artists’ Illustration Course): The only way to truly see something is to draw it.

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Garbage Day

Illustration of a woman, distraught, sitting among full garbage bags. The title of the story, Garbage Day, is written above the garbage bags.

The idea for the suspense short story below came to me when I was out for a walk with my four-legged friend Harold. He has a tendency to try and pee on the netting and old bed sheets people put over their trash bags. While diverting him from peeing on one such sheet, the shape of the bags underneath gave me the seed of this story. So, thanks for the inspiration Harry!

It’s running for eight now. I have to be at work by 8:30. And there’s still that thing that needs doing. But the bed is warm and that thing is something I don’t want to do. I have to. I know it. I only want to deny it for a little while longer.

I roll over and swing my arm out to encircle a warm body that is no longer there. My arm flops against the sheet and mattress beneath, as if surrendering to the fact of his absence. The sheets are warm, inviting. The day ahead is cold and awkward.

It’s been a week since I’ve been at the office. People will ask questions. They’ll say, “Oh Rebbecca, how are you doing? Really?” in that tone that makes you want to punch them. Or they’ll pretend nothing has happened. Or they’ll look away. I don’t know which I’d rather.

Another glance at the clock tells me I have no choice if I’m going to be on time. I untangle myself from the sheets. So warm. Goodbye. My clothes are on in a minute, my hair pinned up. I throw on a little make-up — no one’s going to question my appearance today and I can’t be bothered to give a shit.

I try not to think about the next task as I descend the stairs. I push it out of my mind, thinking instead of the soothing aroma of brewing coffee. It will fill my nostrils when I enter the office in about twenty-five minutes. Then I can hide at my desk and carry on with my life.

Then I’m in the porch facing my nightmare. My weekly nightmare. I managed to avoid it until now, since that day so long ago. My parents had done it, or David had done it. But he won’t be doing it anymore.

Black garbage bags, ten of them, fill the space. My knees go a little weak, thinking of entwining my fingers into the thin, tacky plastic. And I have to swallow back vomit that is threatening to creep up my throat. A sour taste lingers in my mouth.

This is not hard. I know it’s not hard. People do this every damn week. Why can’t I?

But I know why. And I can’t think of that day without thinking of long-dead Snuffles. Beautiful, loving Snuffles. God, how I miss that dog.

I walk around the bags and sit, fall almost, to the bench next to the door. It’s hard to breathe so I open the door a crack, letting the light Fall breeze caress my face. That was a mistake. That’s when I see it.

The sheet sits next to the stairs, on a little patch of grass in front of the house. That’s all it takes. I start to urge.

I shove the door closed with a bang and dash for the bathroom. Barely making it I puke into the sink. Hot, sticky tendrils of it flow over my chin. The smell almost makes me vomit again. I hold it down. I raise my head, knowing it’s a mistake, and look into the mirror.

But I don’t see myself, not as I am, no, I see a little girl, innocent and carefree. A little girl that didn’t know her life was about to change forever.

I walked Snuffles every day before school, around seven-thirty. It had been one of the conditions of getting her. My mother made me promise to walk her and so I did. But it wasn’t a chore, Snuffles was the best friend an eight-year-old girl could have. She loved to cuddle and would lick my face with her hot little tongue.

On this particular morning, it was cool, a little later in the year than it is now and I could see my breath as I walked. I had mittens on too, with Snuffles leash wrapped around one. We strutted along like we owned the world.

It was garbage day. Piled beside each driveway, on a little strip of grass, were black or green bags. Often one or two and, rarely, three or more. Over most of them, as required, was a sheet, to keep birds away. Some late-risers, putting out their own bags or getting into their cars, smiled at me as we passed. I smiled back. We lived in a small town outside a big town; it was safe and most people knew each other.

Snuffles would stop every now and then, squatting as she peed. In my pocket I had two poop bags, just in case, though she hardly pooped on her walks. For which I was very thankful.

In front of one house there was a paisley sheet covering some very lumpy trash. Snuffles squat on the grass next to it. I stopped to let her do her business and looked around, waiting. It was a quiet part of the neighbourhood, sleepy even. Most of the cars were still in the driveways. The overnight condensation glistened on metal and glass in the rising sunlight. I remember thinking how calm and dreamlike it was.

I had no idea that dream would soon turn into a nightmare.

There wasn’t the usual tug on the leash and so I looked to see what Snuffles was doing. She was chewing on something sticking out from underneath the sheet. I remember thinking that people should do a better job of bagging their trash.

It was a little sausage, pale and tubular. Snuffles gnawed on it with her sharp little teeth, leaving impressions in the meat. Little bits of it came away and revealed red beneath. Tiny trickles of that red ran from the opened seams. That was strange, I had never seen a sausage that looked like that inside.

And did sausages have little wrinkles like that? No, not usually. And what was that at the end? It looked like, almost could have been, a fingernail. I leaned in closer to look.

It wasn’t a sausage. Snuffles was chewing on a human finger, now gnawed and raw with blood.

Adrenaline flooded my body. I didn’t know what to do, which way to go. I froze, not old enough, experienced enough, to handle the situation. I let my eyes trace the shape of the sheet. It was a particular kind of lumpy, a shape that was, now, very clear. I backed up a step, tugging on Snuffles’s leash.

She protested, still trying to get at the finger she had mangled. I pulled harder. The dog protested but finally relented. However, she was on one side of the sheet, I was on the other. The strap of the leash snagged against the material and started to drag it.

“No,” I whispered, knowing I did not want to see what was beneath that sheet. I wanted to keep walking, to pretend this hadn’t happened, to have my innocence left intact. It was too late for that.

The sheet drew back in slow motion. Behind the chewed, pale and, yes, lifeless, finger was a palm. Connected to it were three other, dead fingers and one stubby thumb. Against the red blood of the mangled finger, those digits looked almost white.

Snuffles came closer and the sheet continued its slow reveal. Soon an arm, clothed in a suit, blue and pin-striped, slid into view. From the crumpled outline of the sheet, I knew what was coming. And I knew I was not prepared for it.

Little brown tufts of hair popped free as the sheet travelled on. Next the start of an eyebrow, darker than the other hair. And along an almost white jawbone were hints of stubble. Finally, the first of two horrors presented themselves to me.

The eye was open, begging, pleading but soulless, locked in the agony of death. Its brother soon joined it and the pair locked on my own. I couldn’t look away. I could only stare at the little blood vessels, gape at the blue pupils that still haunt my nightmares.

It was too much. I tugged again and Snuffles, yelping a little, came to my side. As she did the head was revealed completely. What was left of it.

The left side of his skull was only partly there. Above his eye socket, along a jagged piece of exposed white bone, were flecks of red and grey. Beneath and behind it was a mass of misery that I hope never to see again in my life. I suppose brain surgeons see it all the time. But not like that, not penetrated, destroyed. I found out later that it had been done with a golf club. I didn’t need to know that. It didn’t help.

The middle-aged man’s stiff corpse lay there, exposed, unmoving and unseeing in the morning cold. But I still didn’t, couldn’t move.

My knees gave way and I slumped to the ground. Something, some reflex, some survival mechanism clicked on in my brain then. And I screamed. I howled, like a wounded animal.

I don’t know how long it was before someone, one of the people from one of the nearby houses, came out and found me there. My throat was raw as she wrapped her arms around me and turned me away from the body.

Later I found out that it was a town councillor, the body. The man had been involved in some shady dealings and got his comeuppance. It shook our little town to the core, not that I was aware of it at the time. They sheltered me from it. I only wish they could have protected me from that scene.

To me, who he was didn’t matter. He was only the body. And I would never forget it, no matter how hard I tried. I would look into his eyes every garbage day.

After rinsing the sink I make my way from the bathroom back to the porch. I summon courage that doesn’t exist. Damn you David, you son-of-a-bitch. This is your job. Instead, you made time with Cindy at your office. Well, you’re gone now and I’m left with this. The remnants of your life, collected in ten bags, that you couldn’t be bothered to take when you moved out.

And it’s fucking garbage day.

I walk out the front door, ignoring the bags, and lock it behind me.

The bags will still be there later. That’s okay. I’ll deal with them then.

Funny Signs (and Odd Ones Too) from Around the World

When I travel, whether at home or abroad, I tend to take photos of funny signs, odd signs, graffiti, stickers and anything else I find interesting. For this “whatever Wednesday” I thought I’d share a few of them.

To start let’s look at a few odd signs from here in Newfoundland.

I took this first one on Fogo Island, which you may have heard of. An inn is located there that attracts well-earning clientele from all over. This particular sign was outside someone’s house and, as you can see, pointed the way to the iceberg ice on offer.

 

Photo of a sign bearing the message "Iceberg Ice" with an arrow.

 

I see this next one whenever we visit my mother-in-law’s hometown and it has always struck me as funny. When can you go two directions and end up south? Whenever you’re in Old Perlican.

 

Photo of a highway sign with two indications for south (in different directions) and one for north

 

Anyone who has bought fries (or chips if you prefer) from the chip truck in Rocky Harbour has seen this one. Not all that original but it sticks out to you as soon as you see it.

 

Sticker on a food truck window of Johnny Cash with the text "Cash only please!"

 

Moving on from my homeland we go to our neighbour, Nova Scotia, Halifax in particular. We were walking down the street and passed this bus shelter. A vandalized, anti-vandalism sign has a certain irony to it. And it’s creative too.

 

An anti-vandalism sticker on a bus shelter that has been vandalized

 

This next one is also in Halifax. I don’t know who or what Eric is but he’s coming. Is Eric the giraffe thing? And there’s some odd Spanish thing going on with that punctuation. I don’t try to figure ’em out, I only take the pictures.

 

Photo of a temporary wooden wall with graffiti of a giraffe (?) and the text "Eric Is Coming!"

 

A big jump here to Bangkok, Thailand. This was underneath a pedestrian overpass. The concrete the message is written on is one of the supports for the walkway. In the bottom of the photo, you can see a vendor selling orange juice, though if I recall it was more like Tang than juice.

 

Photo of a support for a pedestrian walkway in Bangkok with graffiti that states "Chis H. is a bad mofo. Big Respect!"

 

The rest of the images are from New Zealand and I can’t recall the situation with all of them — it was five years ago now. But I’ll give context as much as I can.

This first one was stuck to the wall of a building in Auckland. I especially liked the little cartoon guy and the fact that someone annotated the sticker in ballpoint pen. Both sides of the debate are alive and well in that city.

 

Photo of a sticker on a wall in Auckland, NZ. The sticker has a little cartoon monster holding a sign that says "Religion Divides!" and beneath that text someone has written in "Faith Unites"

 

There’s nothing funny about a falling rocks sign but there was something about this one that made me want to snap it. Maybe it was the awful luck of that guy, that he’d be walking underneath when that huge anvil of a rock happened to crack off like that.

 

Photo of a diamond shaped falling rocks sign on a beach in New Zealand.

 

If I recall this next one was in Raglan, a surfing town in the North Island. I was mystified by the fish skeleton. I mean, sure, the surfer and board are clear enough — surfing that way. But, dead fish the other way? Maybe a Kiwi can fill me in.

 

Photo of a sign on a surf beach in NZ. One panel has the skeleton of a fish. The other has a surfer holding a board.

 

Again, nothing too hilarious or odd about this next one. But, for some reason, someone has scratched out “hands” from the sign. I’m not sure what word was scratched out from the Maori translation at the bottom. This was in a washroom in Picton, where the ferry from the North to the South Island docks.

 

Photo of a sign to remind people to wash their hands, from a bathroom in Picton, NZ. Someone has obliterated the word "hands" from the sign.

 

While I didn’t go bungy jumping I was on a bus tour that stopped at A. J. Hackett Bungy near’s Queen’s Town. This image was on the door to the women’s washroom there. A nice change up from the usual icon.

 

Photo of the sign from the door of a women's washroom at a bungy business in Queen's Town, NZ. It shows the usual female icon bungee jumping.

 

We spent quite a bit of a time in Napier, where I took this next photo. While on a walk up Bluff Hill we passed a house that had this unique mailbox. It’s an old iMac case, or two repurposed quite well.

 

Photo of a mailbox in Napier, NZ made from an old iMac case

 

Back to Auckland, Mission Bay if I recall. Outside a gelato place was this sign trying the direct approach to selling.

 

Photo of a sign outside a gelato store that states "Be nice to your kids... buy them ice cream"

 

I really like this next one. This rather quick and rough sketch of an ad was posted on a wall in a hostel we were staying at. The person must have been in a hurry to make the sign and figured it would get the job done. With all those extras perhaps they didn’t need to put in much effort to sell it.

 

Photo of a piece of paper from a hostel in New Zealand. It is advertising a car that is for sale. The drawing is very rudimentary and the text very haphazard.

 

And the best for last. It’s a good example of the Kiwi humour. They don’t take themselves too seriously; I don’t know about you but I could always do a bit better in that regard. Anyway, it made me laugh out loud when I first saw it.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little around the world signage tour.

 

Photo of a chalk board sign inside a pub in New Zealand. Written on it is "Children left unsupervised with be taught how to swear..."

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Windows App Woes… Trying an Android Emulator

There are lots of great apps for tablets out there. They can help you be effective, efficient and entertained. The problem: I own a Windows tablet (a Surface Pro 3) and it’s an iOS and Android world. The eventual workaround I arrived at: an Android emulator. But first, let’s explore how I got there.

Why not get a tablet running iOS or Android? Well, first, I want to own less devices, not more. Second, I need a desktop — running Windows or Mac OS — to use software like Clip Studio Paint EX and Photoshop.

And there are many great apps built for Windows tablets of course, but my issue is with reading apps: Comixology and Kindle.

A screenshot from my Comixology account showing the Backups screen which lists comics and links to download them in CBR or PDF format

Comixology’s “Backups” screen on their site. You can see that certain publishers (Image for one) allow downloads of comics in both CBZ and PDF format. Other publishers, like Marvel and Dark Horse, do not allow such backups.

With Comixology, reading offline is not possible in the web reader, the only option available on Windows. I am aware you can download backups of comics to read offline but only from certain publishers. Contacting customer support, suggesting they release a Windows app, was not helpful (as expected).

The Kindle app for Windows has several issues for image-heavy books. There are a lot of UI elements that keep you from viewing a book in true full screen. And you can’t zoom in on images in a book. Amazon also discontinued the Kindle app for Windows 8/10, not that it was much better.

It might appear that I’m picking on Amazon (both Comixology and Kindle are Amazon services). But, of course, I want to use these services. I want to be able to use them as any iPad or Kindle Fire user can.

The solution: use an Android emulator

I can have the functionality I want and can also choose the device I want to use. The emulator I chose was DuOS.

A screenshot of my Windows desktop showing DuOS (Android emulator) running in a window

DuOs running on my Windows desktop with the DuOs Configuration Tool open as well. The Configuration Tool lets you set fullscreen, RAM and other options.

So why did I pick it?

DuOS is not free; it costs $15 USD. That’s quite a deal. There are many free options out there but none that were quite as easy. I could figure out one of the other offerings but I didn’t want to take that time. I wanted something that worked, right out of the box.

How’s it working out?

Great. You can switch back and forth between Android and Windows with ease. I had one issue with screen rotation not kicking in, but that was because screen rotation wasn’t working in Windows either. A quick restart and it was fine. As always…

via GIPHY

Are there more persistent issues?

It’s slow to load and it tends to slow down Windows a bit too. Though that was expected; it is an emulator after all.

For the Comixology and Kindle apps, it’s great. When I’m reading a comic or a book I don’t want to be interrupted. I don’t want to be checking email or Facebook. For my purposes, those “issues” are more features. You may have different needs. I should also note that a more powerful machine, one with more RAM, would probably alleviate those concerns quite a bit.

Why I’m happy with this Android emulator

I’m always trying to own less, to simplify my day-to-day activities. I like to have options but I also don’t want to have to maintain many devices.

With this solution, I’m able to have that simplicity. I can have one device to do my work and leisure activities. However, I still like reading prose on e-ink readers. But that’s for another post.

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Rufus Snarblax

Rufus Snarblax - Flash Fiction Story

Below is a short tale entitled Rufus Snarblax, the first entry in Flash Fiction Fridays. Each Friday I’ll publish a new story that will be around 1000 words. But I reserve the right to call whatever length I want flash fiction in this context (it is my site after all).

Most of these pieces will be science fiction but some, certainly, will not. I write in various genres, letting out whatever wants out from the strange, banana-fuelled recesses of my brain.

So, without further ado, I’ll let Rufus take it from here…

Frank looked at the typewriter again, for the fifth time. He looked at the words written on the blisteringly white paper wedged against the cylinder of the machine. Or, rather, he looked only at the white paper for there were no words upon it yet.

Frank didn’t like to write.

So why was he a writer? He couldn’t have told you that. Maybe he loved to write or could love to write if he could write what he wanted. He had loved to write, once. But now he wrote garbage. He thought it was garbage at any rate — alien romances. Who wanted alien romances?

A lot of creatures apparently. And it wasn’t like he had a choice.

He let out a huge sigh. Resigned to his task he started typing.

The keys made satisfying chunk sounds as he pressed them. The typewriter was old, manual. The corresponding typebars swung into position and stamped against the ribbon. They left the imprint of each letter on the paper. Frank’s fingers ached, thinking of all he had left to do. He missed his word-processor.

He typed Wormhole Rendezvous: An Alien Romance. His finger jabbed return. And he typed By: Rufus Snarblax. His pen name.

Another sigh escaped his lips. So it began again. It was all too real. The clock on the wall read 5:45 AM. He had a couple hours, a little more.

Then his editor would arrive.

He pressed return a few more times and then began in earnest. It was all he could do.

The words flowed, from his mind and through his fingers. Plastic and metal translated them into little drops of ink on pulped trees. Well, what looked like ink and paper anyway. The ludicrousness of it all made him laugh out loud. He stopped typing.

The clock read 6:23 AM. Was it 6:23 AM? Was it even a functioning clock?

Frank glanced around the spartan room. It contained only his writing desk and the clock. The old replica typewriter sat on the desk and to its left lay a stack of hundreds of sheets of 20-pound typing paper. One lone sheet sat to the right of the typewriter. The room itself was a perfect cube, as far as he could tell. The walls were all white, they looked like regular painted drywall. And in the ceiling was a single incandescent light bulb. Behind him, behind his battered and squeaky wooden — was it? — chair was a door.

His editor would come through that door at 8 AM sharp. Again he sighed, louder than the other times. He started the chunking and clacking once more.

After years it was only a matter of letting his mind go to work, hoping his tired hands could keep up. Today it was wormholes, yesterday a starship, the day before the surface of a cold, barren asteroid. The setting didn’t matter. All that mattered was that two, or more — depending on the target audience — beings found each other. His editor provided the specs.

He stopped typing again and his eyes went to the lone sheet of paper to the right of the typewriter. On it was almost a full page of type — today’s specs. The target audience was the civilian population of Erdilon VIII. There was a thriving economy there based around tunnellers, worm-hole jockeys. They would dive through in their ships, hoping to find something of value. Then they would hope to return with said something. It was gold rush days there now. The public wanted, craved was the word in the spec, stories about their gallant brethren. And about the aliens they met and seduced. Of course. Whether those stories were true, or not. On the spec, below the overview he had read, were a few choice snippets from some of these tunnellers.

Singleblad the Everlasting, a likely name, had written a couple of lines. It concerned his quest for the Serdedian Snudas, an ancient weapon of some kind. Barry Tysver — yes, Barry is a common name on Erdilon VIII, one of those cosmic coincidences — found love through one wormhole. Then the space harpy, his words, left him and took all the valuables he had squirrelled away. There were another couple tales in the spec but those two would do.

Frank had his through-line: Barry the Somewhatlasting was successful in his quest for the ancient Talmeredian Snarflas. It being the only thing that could save his people. But, would he choose his mission or the stunning Talmeredian maiden who guarded the Snarflas? With her pulsating, iridescent tentacles she was quite a catch.

Frank started typing, forcing the words onto the paper. He changed out the sheet of paper, then another, and another.

He finished and looked at the clock. It read 7:50 AM.

Once upon a time, he would read back over what he had written. Those times were long gone, years gone. So many years. What did he care anyway? If the story wasn’t good perhaps his editor would return him to Earth. Or, better yet, kill him. Either way, he’d be free.

7:55 AM. Five minutes to dream, to remember. To ponder what ifs.

What if he had stayed home that night, instead of chasing those lights he had seen in the sky? But he had been a new New York Times bestselling author. He had made his name with a book, of fiction, based on a personal experience. In the forest, he had found something odd and used it as the basis for his book. What if those lights had been the start of his next great work?

Instead, here he was, years later — how many? — writing pithy romance for aliens, trapped in a replica of an Earth room. Outside these four walls was an architecture he couldn’t fathom and an atmosphere he couldn’t breathe. The door behind him — through which his editor would soon emerge, dressed in a pressure suit — was one end of an airlock. The pressure suit hid most of the editor’s grotesqueness. But it couldn’t hide the six arms and the three rows of seven eyes.

Frank shuddered.

He glanced at the stack of blank white paper once more. It was so white, like a beacon.

What was it they said, death by a thousand paper-cuts? He picked up the topmost sheet.

The clock read 7:58 AM.

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Jay’s Pizza Sauce

So, it’s Wednesday and I’m trying something different with my posting schedule. On Wednesdays, I’m going to post “whatever”. That could be a recipe (like this week), something interesting I’ve seen while travelling or anything else. With any luck they’ll be informative and entertaining.
 
On to this week… Marvel at my lack of recipe writing experience! Be astonished by my mix of imperial and metric measurements!
 
I developed this pizza sauce recipe after trying several others. All of those didn’t quite capture the taste and texture I was going for. If you like fennel seed (ie. licorice flavour) you’ll love the taste. If you don’t like that flavour then leave out the fennel seed! I’m pretty sure it’ll still be great.
 
Also, I prefer oregano for pizza sauce and basil for pasta sauce. If you’re the other way around swap ‘em, I won’t tell anyone.
 
You’ve also gotta have something to put the sauce on. I’ve tried several pizza dough recipes over the years but this one has been my go-to recipe for the last couple years.
Print Recipe
Jay's Pizza Sauce
A rich pizza sauce with onion, garlic, and fennel.
Course Sauce
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Servings
Pizzas
Ingredients
Course Sauce
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 15 minutes
Servings
Pizzas
Ingredients
Instructions
  1. Cut up your onions and start frying them in a little water (see notes below).
  2. Mince your garlic and add to the onions. Add a little more water, if necessary, to keep it from sticking.
  3. Add fennel seeds to onion and garlic.
  4. When the onions start to turn translucent and most of your water has been absorbed/evaporated, add the balsamic vinegar.
  5. Continue cooking until slightly carmelized.
  6. Add onion mixture to the can of tomatoes in a blender. Blend.
  7. Transfer the mixture to a medium-sized pot and heat on low to medium.
  8. Add the oregano, tomato paste, salt, pepper and maple syrup. Stir.
  9. Continue to stir occasionally. Once it starts to bubble/steam a little reduce the heat.
  10. It’s ready to go -- top your pizza(s), bake and enjoy!
Recipe Notes

1. I use a ceramic, non-stick frying pan and so avoid using oil to fry the onions and garlic. I use a little water to keep them from sticking.
2. This recipe makes a lot of sauce, maybe enough for 8 pizzas. The dough recipe I reference makes 2 pies so you'll get about 4 uses out of the sauce (depending on how much you like). Freeze the leftover sauce in small amounts to thaw when needed.