Monday, December 31, 2012

Funeral for a friend.








It’s never easy to watch a former friend die. It’s not that easy to watch an enemy die either.

A lot of uncomfortable thoughts went through my mind as I sat by Steve’s bed.

I thought of how I had deserted my fine feathered friend, giving up on my role as a superhero in order to make some real money as a Canadian journalist. Perhaps I had become jaded, cynical.

Maybe I just got tired of busting corporate polluters. It was always the same thing with Steve.

He was always going after climate-change deniers, who were in his opinion at about the same moral and intellectual level as Holocaust deniers, or taking down abusive cops who stood idly by with their thumbs up their asses, laughing like hyenas while disabled people were driven out of their homes, and according to Steve, “Seeing all them miserable bastards walk free while their victims were marginalized, labeled, and ultimately destroyed by the very people who were responsible for their service and protection.”

Well. I was young back then and I guess we all did some foolish things…

If you can’t beat them, join them, right?

We all have to make a living, right? I got tired of living like a piece of shit, never having anything nice, unable to pay the rent or afford a good girlfriend. And who wants a bad girlfriend?

So I guess you could say I sold out my principles for a job. I gave up my freedom for bread. I gave up my integrity for a big fine car and a fancy house. I have the best food and the nicest clothes. Not that I needed the money, but I even married a rich man—just the icing on the cake, really. I don’t care if he blows the pool boy when I’m not around. He looks good in public and doesn’t ask too many questions about my own little peccadilloes.

But Steve had never seen it that way. And oddly enough, Steve had never condemned me for it either.

As Steve once said, “Many are called, few are chosen.”

I have to admit that one made my guts flip over when I heard it, but I don’t think it was meant unkindly. Steve could so easily offend, with his regard for truth, and his complete disgust with the crass, bourgeois materialism, the profligate consumerism, the conspicuous waste of the middle class, coddled and ultimately spoiled by decades of maternal Canadian social policy.

The most unimaginative and uncompetitive people in the world, really, except on a hockey rink.

Steve hadn’t regained consciousness in the last three days.

We were waiting for the end, the doctor and I.

Steve was suffering from ‘an accelerated frame of reference in relativistic terms,’ to quote Doctor Baldur Dash.

It was quite a mystery as to how it all happened. So far I hadn’t found the time to inquire further. Surely Steve had some friends? Someone that I could ask? What had Steve been working on recently? Where had he gone? Who was he after? Poor old Steve, better known as The Heron to tabloid crud-writers, was always after some member of the government, or what passes for corporate leadership in this country.

Steve was always after someone—and generally speaking, someone was always after him.

These people never go down without a big jet of ink, a good squirm, and one last, long, drawn-out slither.

While he wasn’t quite dead yet, his body was slowly collapsing in front of our eyes…sucked into itself as it passed into some other realm of null-space.

“Won’t be long now,” said the Doctor.

The beeps stopped beeping and the monitor showed a flat line.

The doctor looked at me. I shook my head, feeling that it was I who was killing my old friend.

But Steve had stated his desires clearly and firmly in his will, something very few superheroes ever think of. We all think we’re immortal, don’t we? But we all have to grow up someday.

No ‘extraordinary means,’ would be used to keep him alive beyond his allotted time on this Earth.

* * *

Three or four of us stood around as the casket was lowered into the roadside excavation.

Steve was to be used as backfill in a sewer-repair project. Considering how long and hard Steve had fought for the disabled, the mentally ill, the permanently unemployable, and working poor families in this here community, it seemed appropriate. Anyway, none of us wanted to buy him a plot. I suppose the others couldn’t afford to chip in, and I didn’t see why I should. The others drifted away, leaving me alone with a muddy hole in the ground and The Peacock eyeing me suspiciously from across on the other side.

“What brings you here?” She asked harshly. “Slumming? Come to have the last laugh?”

She was wearing a body stocking in November. They say poverty breeds virtue, but that’s an anti-Canadian attitude. Only extreme wealth and power gives a person the proper perspective to put the world and its dirty, stinking, penniless foreign people and unwanted regular Canadians in their rightful place.

“Steve still owes me fifty bucks. I suppose I’ll never see it now.” And then I turned and walked away.

I’m busy and duty has been attended to. Tonight I have to report on how we're going to cut corporate taxes below zero. Someone important will explain it to me. (I hope.)

My editor has been all over me like a dirty shirt, as I've been stalling for a few days on an important assignment, the one where I explain how the oil-sands are not really polluting at all and how everything is the fault of the Americans, or the Chinese, or the working poor of this nation. I sure wish I could have stuck around to find out what happened to Steve, but if it was a serious threat, I would be notified by authorities, and instructed on how best to downplay it in the evening news. Until then, why think about it?

I don’t get paid to think, just talk. I read the news with a straight face, and take myself very seriously indeed.

It’s not a particularly tough job, but someone’s got to do it.



Passive Discoverability. WTF?






Passive discoverability? I thought that only worked with Claymores and punji sticks.

When I was reading Smashwords founder Mark Coker’s Book Publishing Predictions for 2013 on the Smashwords Blog, there was nothing revolutionary there until I got down near the end and read the words ‘passive discoverability.’ I’ve never heard that term before. This story has been extensively re-posted and re-blogged. I went looking for a sensible definition of the term.

Mark talks about ‘viral catalysts’ in his Secrets to E-Book Publishing Success, which I have read. He’s saying that ‘passive discoverability’ and ‘viral catalysts’ are the key to marketing books in the near future.

But what the hell was he talking about? Was he really saying what I thought he was saying? Is he saying, “Publish your book and then don’t do anything?”

Also, are other expert sources correct when they say that ‘spamming’ on Twitter, posting on Facebook and other social platforms, doing author interviews, swapping blog posts, signing up to review books on Goodreads and Shelfari, giving writing tips, and all that sort of thing really doesn’t help?

If so, what a relief. I was getting sick of it, also all that crap about being nice to everyone all the time, and respecting people of all different crackpot beliefs, all sorts of kooky and odd-ball cultures…it was getting a bit much. And it’s not really me, is it?

It’s not really me. ‘Cause I just don’t give a rat’s ass, when you get right down to it.

But honestly, folks, it’s going to be ever so hard not to do it, when everyone else seems to be doing it, and by their own eminently-trustworthy and genuinely-cheerfully enthusiastic accounts, they appear to be enjoying some success. My heart sank when I read those words, ‘passive discoverability.’

Was it all for nothing then?

Previously, in ‘The Law of Rapidly Diminishing Returns,’ I have speculated that while at first an author might sell a few books, over time your small social media market pool is saturated—everyone who wants to buy your book has already done so, and therefore you have to keep clicking on new followers, making new friends, and signing up for new platforms to the point where it no longer makes sense in terms of the time spent to do so. Where once you had a thousand friends and sold ten books in a month, (your first month,) now you need ten thousand friends to sell a hundred books, (in your first month,) and then you need a million friends to sell a thousand books…in your first month, with rapidly diminishing returns after that.

So what the heck is ‘passive discoverability?’

Pit full of punji sticks.
I Googled around and here’s what I found. Passive discoverability has one major application in the information technology sense. It’s a way of scanning your own network to check for security breaches.

Basically, you scan your network and look for changes. If you didn’t make those changes, somebody else did. It requires an extensive and accurate network mapping system. Clearly that doesn’t really apply here.

There were other entries. Like this one from Digital Body Language. Here the author is saying that the proper use of search engine optimization will help your story come up in active searches, (without you bringing it to a wider audience by cross-posting, or spamming your Facebook friends.) But in a more subtle sense, it’s a way of linking a change of perception to another story that might be passed on by word of mouth, surely the most effective form of advertising and promotion.

The key thing to understand is that it has to be somebody else’s mouth.

Techniques of passive discoverability include:

Having your books available on as many platforms as possible.

Good covers and good blurbs.

Books in a genre that people actually want to read.

Good reviews. See: How to sell ebooks on iTunes from Smashwords Blog. (My only question is how to reconcile this with passive discoverability.)

So you need:

Proper tags and key words in product description.

Use of key words in blog posts, assuming you have links to books in the blog—see right column.

The regular addition of fresh, new, original content to your blog or website.

The regular publication of new books.

It can still include posting your informative, entertaining or useful blog content on as many sites as possible, where it can be discovered.

It still includes building up an audience, even though passive discoverability doesn’t rely on active tweeting of direct links to books and or other products. The very fact that my Twitter bio has a link to my blog brings traffic. A small percentage of new followers come to see who I am. Some stay to read a story, and no doubt some click on the odd book…just to see what I am doing as much as anything.

So that’s what they mean when they say passive discoverability.

Portent describes older advertising models as ‘interruptions,’ which is certainly true of TV and radio, perhaps to a lesser extent newspapers, which are all ‘up front’ (not so linear,) and also divided into sections.

It’s about giving people what they want, and showing them that there’s plenty more cool stuff here as well.

According to Portent, “…passive discoverability is about having a conversation, not yelling…”

And let’s be honest. Passive discoverability worked just fine when we were young and strong and good looking and enjoying the dating scene in a previous life…no it didn't.

By the way, if you really loved me you would re-post, re-tweet, and click on them social media buttons.

Comments are always welcome, or if you have any other suggestions, please feel free to do so.


Special Bonus Section.

Writing tip: never be boring. Marketing tip: be nice to everybody. No matter how much it sucks.

AND; Here’s how to go from three hits a day on your blog to an average of 200. Does it sell books? It’s hard to say without some control blogs and un-promoted books to compare it to.

Probably not, though.


Photos: Top, Wiki Commons, centre, Joe Loong, National Museum of the Marine Corps, bottom, author photo.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Entropy.






Neolithic farmers got back about ten or twenty calories for every calorie they expended in work. In those cultures, ninety percent of human power, call it the labour force, was involved in food production. Now, the human energy involved in food production is maybe ten or fifteen percent. Modern farmers using machinery, fertilizers and pesticides use about eight calories for every one produced. By the time these foodstuffs reach the table, twenty to thirty calories have been ‘burned up’ to produce every single calorie consumed. This is the result of entropy in the food chain, which can be described in different ways.

A thousand pounds of grain fed to cows produces one hundred pounds of beef, which when consumed by one human, produces one pound of corresponding flesh. It’s a ten-to-one ratio from one level to the next of the food web according to a well-known theory. One wonders if it’s ten-to-one when it’s a whale shark eating krill. But for every thousand pounds of krill ingested, there probably is a ratio of ‘productive work.’

In the example of the cow, much of the benefit of eating the grain went to wasted work—the animal walked around in a field, it mooed, it wagged its tail to keep off flies. Much of the energy burnt was consumed buy the very act of eating and digestion. It was wasted energy in the sense of entropy in the food chain. The whale shark didn’t spend all of its energy ingesting krill, it also propelled itself continuously through the water in order to obtain that krill. The whale shark is burning food energy to produce more food just as we do. Incidentally, the thousand pounds of grain would have done more ‘work’ if we simply consumed it as grain. That’s because ten people each could have consumed one hundred pounds of that grain and it would have gone into the making of one corresponding pound of flesh. This is a simplistic view, but bear with me.

If you go back to hunter-gatherer cultures, it’s estimated they spend about twenty hours a week providing food, shelter and clothing for themselves. It’s been called the original affluent society, because the people want for nothing and have plenty of free time to enjoy the most important things in life, which are friends and family.

Admittedly, they live in grass huts and go around mostly naked. In our eyes they are poor. But one of the costs of modern society in all of its energy-richness, is that we tend to take up all the slack in a thousand meaningless activities designed to burn off all of our own surplus of free time. We are also an affluent society.

At one time in the exploration and extraction of fossil fuels there was a ratio of about a hundred-to-one in terms of entropic value. Nowadays it’s more like ten-to-one. For every one calorie of energy expended, we now only get ten back in terms of caloric value, whether it’s for automotive fuels or home heating. The great thing about fossil fuels is the caloric value. It is amazing that a single gallon of gas can push that big heavy vehicle at highway speeds for thirty or forty miles. It really is a kind of miracle when you think about it, and I think that’s why so many of us simply take it for granted: because it’s kind of incomprehensible how all that energy, all that work can come out of such a small amount of some aromatic fluid. Try imagining that with a gallon of water. Theoretically, there’s all kinds of energy locked in there.

***

The indications are this ratio will deteriorate further still, in fact, that’s one reason why the price of energy is both high in historic terms and volatile in terms of everyday markets. Another reason is increasing demand, due to the increasing complexity of our systems. Thirty years ago, very few people in China owned a car. Now it is becoming much more common.

The system is becoming more complex.

The more complex a system becomes, the more demanding it becomes.

***

Political events, such as a revolution in the Middle East, often have an immediate impact on energy prices, with a trickle-down effect on other industries. Simply put, if the price of energy goes up today, the price of sowbellies is going up not too far down the road. Modern society has replaced human energy with chemical and nuclear energy to perform much of its work. These models are models of abundance at low efficiency. The typical auto engine has an efficiency of twenty –five to thirty percent. The most modern nuclear reactors have an efficiency estimated at forty-five percent.

Simply doubling the efficiency of what we already have would solve many of our energy needs for the immediate future. The effect of thermodynamic entropy is so strong that this seems unlikely to be achievable using known processes, both technical and theoretical. This is an entropic aspect of knowledge itself. It takes more energy to learn what we need to know than it might generate in added efficiencies. That’s why old technologies linger. It’s not that they are the best, they are simply more efficient in achieving immediate goals in terms of pure cost-benefit analysis. As you might expect, the efficiency of some of our modern institutions isn’t particularly high. They merely work and solve an immediate and ongoing need, essentially because no one has any better ideas. All new ideas involve risk, and at least old technologies involve easily-understood risk factors. In entropic terms, it’s easier to keep the old thing going rather than get the new one up and running.

The trouble with entropy in the societal sense is that we have to keep the whole shebang going, or we return to barbarism. We have no choice but to stay ahead of that entropic curve. We can conceive of no other choice. Perhaps that is a truer statement.

Social entropy means that the more we attempt to impose our artificial order, the more complex the system becomes, and thus the greater the rate of breakdown of its constituent parts—classic thermodynamics applied to fairly large and heterogeneous groups of people, much of whose energy is dissipated in seemingly random, even nonsensical activities. Many have little to do with providing for material needs. This might include religion, or tattoo parlours, or the jewelry industry, or the glamorous international world of cheese connoisseur magazines. They must have some benefit to society, however intangible. They contribute to GDP. In some weird sense, GDP, gross domestic product, is a measure of the ‘work’ output of a social system, not in caloric terms but monetary terms.

(Photos, top: Social entropy at work, ‘Villa Miseria,’ by Aleposta. Wiki Commons. Lower: ‘Prairie Rainbow Canola Flax,’ by Saffron Blaze. Wiki Commons.)



http://secondlawoflife.wordpress.com/2007/07/28/entropy-and-the-food-chain-part-i/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_entropy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Entropy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generation_IV_reactor

Monday, December 24, 2012

Spores from space.




Roy Poirier and Selena Burridge were walking on the ice-cap, looking for meteorites.

“What have you got, babe?” called Roy, as Selena waved from fifty meters away.

Selena was getting tired, with the wind howling at about sixty kilometers an hour, and they had been leaning into it since they set out. Roy’s tall form was temporarily obscured by horizontally blowing powdered ice.

Selena yelled in a frustrated voice, partially drowned out by the Hercules transport plane, running all four engines up on the end of their two-thousand meter ice runway, preparatory to taking off after a supply delivery. From three kilometers away, normally it would have been  less obtrusive, but they were directly behind it.

“I don’t know,” she yelled in an exasperated tone. “Get over here!”

Roy planted a fluorescent-orange painted stick into the snow, so he could find the exact spot again, and slowly trudged the short distance to her. It was their day off. Normally meteorite searches were much more widespread, but the truth is, the supply of meteorites was replenished daily, and motor transport was a commodity that was not lightly used on day’s off for recreation.

There wasn’t much to do around here on your day off, mused Roy, except drink, and smoke, and write letters, or watch TV. It was a little hobby of his, Roy had explained, the wind blows the top layer of snow off, and you look for little black pebbles. The actual bedrock was so far below, that it almost had to be a meteorite. The ice-pack under them was precipitated, it wasn’t glacial in origin. Anyway, she had seemed to buy it. It was necessary to get her alone, and not with a hundred ears eavesdropping in on every conversation, as in the mess hall or the community centre and recreation building.

Selena was a tall, violet-eyed honey-blonde, and Roy was a single man, although she was married. If you accepted what she said about her husband, very little of which was complimentary, Roy figured that he had a chance. In any case, she was attractive, and they were going to be stuck here for the winter, and what did he have to lose? She was twenty-five, and Roy was twenty-eight.

In some forlorn fashion, they had become friends. Ultimately, Roy was afraid to make the move, which might destroy their friendship. Selena was seemingly oblivious to his needs, hopes and desires, some of which had not been entirely convincing, even to Roy in his most private thoughts. The truth is, Roy had a conscience, which was a damned inconvenient thing sometimes, and he had found her to be a very lonely person, lost in some ways.

“Are you cold?” he asked solicitously, as he approached.

She shook her head negatively. She pointed at the ground.

“What?” he asked. “Have you got one?”

He said this with a tone, half-mocking, half-chiding, and half disbelief.

“I don’t believe it,” he challenged her.

“No, dummy, it’s not a meteorite,” she said, with a bright smile lighting up her face.

“Where?” he asked.

Still not seeing anything of interest; he was looking for a black spot, a stone, a rock, a pebble on the surface of the snow.

“Here,” she said, falling to her knees and then going down on all fours, closely examining some tiny little thing he couldn’t make out. His scratched-up old goggles were rimed with frost already, and they had only been out about ten minutes.

Roy didn’t see anything.

“What?” he asked again.

Selena ignored him, pulling out a tiny little digital camera. Still on her knees, she began to try to shoot some pictures, but the white stuff which appeared to be growing there didn’t have much contrast.

“Huh?” asked Roy again.

He dropped down beside her, and pushed his snow goggles up onto his forehead.

“What is it, Roy?” she asked breathlessly, as the flash unit momentarily dazzled him.

“If you would just stop your blasted amateur photography shoot for half a minute, I may be able to tell you,” he griped.

It looked like a simple white mould. Even all bundled-up in the snowsuit, her hair or something smelled fresh and flowery. He felt his pulse begin to pick up. Sure enough, as he touched it with the tip of a gloved hand, it certainly looked like mould. It closely resembled the stuff that grows on vegetables when they have been left too long in the fridge.

“Well, that’s strange, but it’s not a meteorite,” he told her. “It’s interesting, though.”

For a moment, their eyes met, and he had to force himself to look away and try to be objective about the situation. They were just friends, out killing time, looking for meteorites.

“I wish I had something to put it in,” she mumbled, searching in her capacious pockets for something, anything that would hold a sample.

She wasn’t worried about contaminating it, she was just curious at this point.

“Don’t bother with it,” he advised her, risking another quick look, almost grateful that she was busy rummaging through all the suit pockets.

“Do you get a lot of this around here?” she asked, as they unexpectedly locked eyes again.

As a seismologist, she wasn’t totally familiar with the flora and fauna of Antarctica, but she had never heard of anything like this before. This was her first time on the base.

Roy had been here five years in a row. She thought he was an expert. Roy was grateful that with frozen cheeks, she wouldn’t be able to see him blushing like a schoolboy. He rose to his feet, to stop moving for too long brought a sense of chill. As a weather specialist, studying the effects of global warming on the Ross Ice Shelf, this was not just out of his league, but beyond any interest of Roy’s.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Ask Moriarity.”

“I will,” she replied, and ripped up a little bit of snow, impregnated with strands of white filaments, which seemed stiff and hard, and not all floppy and soft like mould should, he observed. Still, it was awful damned cold today. Perhaps the stuff was just half-frozen.

“Yes,” said Roy. “Moriarity will know. But I’ve never seen or heard of anything like it, that’s for sure.”

Why then, did his heart pound so much? Perhaps it would be a good time to go in and warm up, and who knows what might happen, once in the privacy of his room? He already knew she liked scotch. The challenge was how to pour enough of it down her throat…

“Have you had enough for one day?” she asked, seemingly unable to tear her eyes off the snow, where the growth was all but invisible.

She was still holding the sample in her gloved fingers, studying it curiously. It didn’t seem all that impressive to Roy.

Roy’s heart sank. Were they going looking for Moriarity? That wasn’t what he had in mind at all.

“Sure, why not?” he said with a slightly rueful grin. “This is as cold as I’ve ever known it, this early in the season.”

They heard the roaring of the Hercules, as it thundered into the sky, circling once over the base to gain altitude, making sure all systems were go before its long trip over the frozen ocean.

He fished in his pocket, rewarded with the feel of a film canister. He pried off the cap, and stuck the film in his upper coat pocket, and gave the empty canister to her.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s see what Moriarity has to say about this…”

***

Doctor Moriarity had heard all the jokes, which were based upon Sherlock Holmes’ well-known arch-enemy. Normally a light-hearted person, capable of making fun of himself at the drop of a hat, he had never let it bother him.

As a young lad, he had read a book on put-downs, and being a small, slight boy, he had used them to good effect; taking a little of the stuffing out of the bullies that haunt every elementary school yard. The fact that his father, a Marine drill sergeant, had taught him a few moves, had made him not just confident, but perhaps a little too bold for his own good.

What happened to bullies, or what they thought of him, didn’t matter much to Thomas Moriarity. It was only when he realized the effect of those friendly insults on his friends, relatives and acquaintances. Then he realized that being a little too quick on the draw, plus the advantage he had in terms of sheer verbosity and his remarkably sharp wit. Then he had learned that every joke has to have a victim. Sticks and stones can break your bones…but words can hurt too.

Yet some of those lines were truly, unbelievably funny. That was when he had learned to use the lines on himself, to make himself the victim of his own jokes. It was only later, when someone had pointed out that putting oneself down all the time, might indicate a certain lack of self-esteem, that he had cured the problem altogether. The skills, while allowed to rust, had been exercised from time to time, but only when strictly necessary. Only when the situation truly called for it, and never to help himself, but only others who could not stand up to, or defend themselves against, something or someone bigger and more powerful than themselves.

Doctor Thomas Moriarity had built a lot of friendships with the kind of people he cared about, and the enemies he had inevitably made had learned to give him a wide berth when possible, and treat him with the utmost respect and courtesy when contact was necessary or unavoidable.
When Roy and Selena arrived at the door of the small building he shared with a team of botanists and biologists, pounding on his door and entering with a flurry of finely-crystallized shards of wind-driven ice, he sat up to take a quick break from his studies. Snapping off the power switch on the scanning electron microscope, he was ready for a break anyway. His eyes weren’t getting any younger, and neither was the rest of him.

“Hey, you old stick in the mud,” called Roy to the balding, round-faced man inside.

“Are calling me a queer, Roy?” he muttered mildly, rewarded with a quick gape of disbelief from Selena and a loud guffaw from Roy.

“Haw! I’ve never heard that one before,” admitted Roy. “For the record; no.”

Roy stood there grinning for a moment. Then he pushed Selena forward in the direction of the lab.

She stood there looking around the room for a moment, unsure of what to say to the mustachioed figure, with his white lab coat, twinkling grey eyes visible behind thick, wire-rimmed half-glasses.

“I don’t think he’s capable of molesting you, little girl,” Roy quipped unhelpfully.

As a newcomer to the base, Selena was still shy, and didn’t know her own place, let alone the names and status of all the individual people on base. While she had been introduced to all the staff on arrival, there were upwards of two hundred of them, and that sort of thing takes a while.

She found herself tongue-tied for a half a moment. But Roy wasn’t shy about anything, as she was quickly discovering.

“She found something weird out on the hill,” Roy explained. “Come on, babe, give it up.”

Selena pulled the black plastic film can out of her coat pocket, and proffered it up to Moriarity.

“It looks like some kind of mould,” she said shyly, wondering if she was going to be laughed at like some newcomer, who didn’t know anything, which was in fact exactly what she was. For some reason she wondered why she didn’t have more confidence.

Roy was tipping Thomas the wink, and indicating Selena with sideways jerks of the head and rapidly twitching eyebrows.

Thomas Moriarity understood the situation perhaps better than Roy himself, and grinning a little in a non-judgmental fashion, he took the canister from her and led them into the other room, where the stores were kept, and where some of the simpler tasks were performed.

“Mould, is it?” he murmured.

Inwardly he marveled at Roy’s sexual ambitions. Roy was anything but handsome, but he seemed to compensate for it with sociability and rough good humour that couldn’t be ignored, whether you approved or not. And Selena was almost too good to be true. But she was clearly a grown woman, and the doctor had a funny feeling that she had learned to look after herself.

Selena wouldn’t have been selected to come to Little America if she had been a fluffy-headed bimbo, that’s for sure. He wondered if Roy had figured that out yet. You couldn’t judge a book by its cover, or a woman’s mind by the size of her breasts. Selena wasn’t just another pretty face. He and Roy had been friends for a long time. The African-American scientist was a poker buddy, and they talked shop quite a bit. Over time, they had gotten to know a little bit about each other’s families back in the States. Tom wondered if Roy was biting off more than he could chew with this one. But that wasn’t any concern of his. In an isolated environment such as this, you got to know the people around you pretty well.

“Can you get us a cup of coffee?” Doctor Moriarity asked, and Selena looked wildly around as if trying to locate a coffee pot and percolator.

“He means me,” grumped Roy, his flashing dark eyes glaring mock-fiercely at the doctor.

The tall, gangly figure of Roy shuffled off while Doctor Moriarity showed Selena how slides were prepared for examination.

“Ah, yes,” he muttered, temporarily lost in his own little world.

She stood there attempting to be fascinated, or at least polite, but felt some inner regret at putting the aging scientist to all this trouble.

As if sensing her unease, he looked up from his task from time to time with a smile, but almost unbelievably, he found her slightly intimidating. Her violet eyes and slim, lithe figure weren’t disfigured by the heavy parka and fur-lined hood, in fact, he could see at a glance why Roy was in the process of falling in love with her.

Yes, there was a distinct chance his friend was going to get hurt, but there was nothing to be said or done about it. If he had been a little younger, the good doctor might have given it a go himself. Not that he would have stood the chance of the proverbial snowball in hell, he thought.

Love is blind, but lust has crystal-clear vision. When he got the chance, he would write that one down. You never know when you might need a good line.

Right about then; the two of them could hear Roy opening up fridge door after fridge door and cussing mildly in the outer room.

“Maybe I should go help him,” suggested Selena helpfully.

“No! Let him suffer,” said the doctor with a hint of mystery evident in his cultured voice, the product of years of education, as well as decades of social interaction with councils, committees, and boards of governors.

She giggled a little at that one, and Thomas Moriarity felt a little more comfortable, aware that if nothing else, she was a human being, and they could get along at some level.

“Try the other one, the far one,” Moriarity bellowed out through the open door, as Roy had obviously started in the wrong corner of the lab, and opened up the ones with all his samples in them. The whole place was crawling with samples, you had to admit.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” they heard the peevish response from the other room.

“All righty, then,” said the doctor. “Let’s have a look-see.”

Then he led her back out to the lab, where all the really interesting machines and devices were located.

He snapped the switch on the optical microscope suite. His studies of fossilized microbial life encapsulated in samples of sedimentary rock taken from hundreds of meters below the surface of the snow-pack could wait.

“This system is much more suitable for this size of critter,” he began without preamble.

Placing the slide on the focus plane of the stereoscopic viewer, he rotated the heads until the magnification range was proper for the specimen. Taking a quick look, he changed heads again.

“What were you guys doing out there, anyway?” he asked curiously, studying the specimen.

“Looking for meteorites,” Roy told him, as he hesitantly sipped at the steaming mug.

Roy and Selena had taken off their coats. The heap of cast-off outerwear steamed on the coat-rack in the corner by the double door and vestibule. Most buildings used for professional purposes had a deep tray by the doors for boots, and they were wearing the courtesy slippers which were widespread in the community.

***

The plane was four hundred nautical miles out to sea. At this time of year, and at this time of day, the crew could look forward to a surreal twilight that might go on for six or ten hours. Even on arrival at the Rio Grande airbase on Tierra del Fuego, it would be dark, cold, wet and miserable according to the weather brief. Although it would be warmer there, relatively speaking. Major Steve ‘Slick’ Dayton turned to the right, taking a long, hard look over at the face of Captain Bret ‘Hairball’ Cheevers. Bathed in the dim green glow of the cockpit instruments, is partner seemed alert and well rested.

“I’m going for a whiz,” Steve informed him.

The copilot gave a little shake of the controls, making sure he had it. They weren’t running on autopilot just yet. This was never a routine flight.

“Roger,” said Bret from the far side, turning and giving him a quick nod.

It felt so good to un-strap for a few minutes.

Dayton could see his copilot doing small shoulder exercises, and sitting up straighter. These were long flights, and it was good to get out of the seat and move around from time to time.

Their loadmaster for the trip was Master Sergeant Phil Zatylny. The Major could see his dark form slumped down in the seat provided for him. That son of a gun could go to sleep at the drop of a hat. There were times Dayton envied him this ability. Making his way back through the aircraft to the small head, an essential item on this long-range transport, the chill of the cargo bay became apparent. The cold came as a real contrast after the snug feel of the Hercules’ cockpit, spacious as it was. While the walk was nice, he wasn’t planning on wasting a whole lot of time back here.

His bladder was full, all that coffee in the weather office before takeoff. He should have taken the time to fully relieve himself before climbing into the pilot’s seat, but he hadn’t really felt the need. It was a long trip home, and he just wanted to get going. While fully experienced in Antarctic flying, Steve was aware at all times, not so much of the dangers, as the price of a mistake. They all accepted the same dangers, no matter where they flew. But somehow this was different. The very nature of the cold, forbidding, world-encircling ocean below made it a kind of a lonely flight, where the small electronic voice of the tower, bidding you ‘farewell and good luck,’ was said in pure and humble sincerity. And sooner or later they all had to fly out of here.

In the tiny washroom, the buffeting and turbulence were a distinct inconvenience, and Steve was having trouble getting the flow of urine started. When one massive buffet came up and slammed him into the wall of the cubicle, he gasped out a curse in dismay, although as a professional, military airman, swearing was usually left out of his vocabulary. It’s not that he didn’t know the words, but all-weather, night-time instrument flights in poor conditions requires clarity above all else.

But he managed to get the pee flowing, and then all of a sudden, he felt a kind of lifting force pick him up off the floor and set him down with a bang again. He cursed again, zipping up hastily. Damn it all to hell! But he’d rather piss himself in his seat if conditions were worsening.

As he popped open the door, it suddenly occurred to him that someone was screaming up there in the cockpit. Steve pelted down the hall, with a blast of adrenalin rocking his guts and spurring him on. The ceiling kept coming down and hitting him on the head. Bret was hoarsely calling his name at the top of his lungs…Steve couldn’t get into his seat…he was bouncing around too much…all he could do is clutch onto the grab bars and try to force himself down…he could get himself down…voices screaming in fear, all around him…he could force himself into the seat but needed two hands to keep himself there…

“Ah! Jesus!” Steve could hear Bret and Phil, both men were screaming at once.

“I can’t strap in!” Steve yelled, trying to tell them something, but what good would it do?

“We’re stalling,” shouted Bret, sawing at the controls. Putting the nose down in these conditions, at this weight, would be touchy, especially in what had suddenly become zero visibility. Out the left window, there was nothing to be seen, all the engines were good…

“Put the nose down!” shouted Steve. “What’s killing all our lift?”

Unknown to Steve, there was a fast-growing shroud of white filaments covering the plane.

To the life-form covering it, it seemed unusually warm out. This spurred its reproduction.  

***

The President of the United States sat at his desk in the situation room, relaxed, confident, with an ankle across his knee, and leaning slightly back in the chair. Surrounded by a semi-circle of grim faces, they all waited silently and impatiently as a small crew of assistants scurried about. One man rose, General of the United States Air Force Mark Taylor.

“The Hercules went down about four hundred and fifty nautical miles from the edge of the Antarctic landmass,” he began, clicking the thing in his hand and bringing up the first image.

“They were en route to an air base in southern Argentina,” he added. “There wasn’t time for radio transmissions, or else it happened very quickly. So far no tracking signals, but that isn’t surprising, due to the great depths of the ocean at that point, and the fact that the nearest, most recent satellite over-flight is, or was, rather, three hundred miles west of there. We’ll have another shot in a half-hour or so.”

Other satellites were being diverted to this task even as the briefing went on.

“Now please listen to this very carefully, ladies and gentlemen.”

The Air Force general sat down, but retained control of the button for the moment. The fourteen men and women in the room, all members of the Cabinet or senior advisers, the highest-ranking officers, and civilian advisers, sat in the swiveling chairs and listened intently.

“…seems to be some kind of extra-terrestrial life-form…clinging to a few tiny meteorite fragments…must have evolved at slightly colder temperatures…the process has speeded up…hope someone reads this soon…fruiting bodies…rapid growth rate…not carbon or silicon based…almost like arsenic and something else…”

A loud burst of talk drowned out the man’s voice, so distant, desperate and urgent, the fear and tension evident in every syllable.

“Shut up!” shouted the president.

“Yes, Mister President,” they all murmured humbly, nodding sagely.

“Tell me more, Mark,” he commanded.

The general rewound the machine and played it again up to that point at low volume, then turned it up again; noting, “He was texting and using the radio. Some of it’s quite technical.”

“…quickly forming mushroom-like colonies…divides into three equal parts about every fifty-seven minutes…rapidly taking over my lab and offices…”

The machine stopped for the moment.

“There’s more, but that’s enough. Anyway, it’s more for the technical people to analyze, Mister President,” stated the general firmly. “You’ve got the gist of the problem.”

“The next shot is the really compelling one,” noted the general. “We have one hell of a problem on our hands, ladies and gentlemen.”

He rose again with alacrity, seemingly unable to remain in his seat calmly.

The next picture popped up, and they all gasped in amazement. The room was dead silent, as the group all stared with open jaws and raised eyebrows. It was a satellite picture at high resolution, although the typical low Antarctic visibility meant the pictures were relatively poor.

“While they don’t exactly look like mushrooms, don’t forget mushrooms and funguses take many forms. They come in all colours and all shapes and sizes, Mister President,” a small, dark, bearded man, Doctor Rami Panagelow, who was barely known to the President; spoke up now.

“The oldest slime moulds are centuries, perhaps millennia old, and cover many square kilometers,” Doctor Panagelow told them. “There’s quite a large one in British Columbia, living under the forest floor.”

Rising, he strode over to the big screen, and pointed at various features while the general stood to one side, watching with a kind of barely-repressed tension. Clearly the general considered this an extreme threat to the security of the United States. The mysterious loss of the aircraft was serious, and any kind of a threat to the Little America base and the men and women stationed there was to be considered important indeed.

“What is the scale?” the President asked. “How big are these things?”

“We estimate these to be six or seven meters in height, Mister President,” the scientist told him. “There are the fruiting bodies, presumably, that he was talking about. These long strands are the mycelium. That more or less corresponds to the normal underground growth of a mushroom. It’s on the surface, perhaps due to being on snow and ice as opposed to topsoil. Or perhaps it just evolved that way…”

The man continued.

“This might be somewhat analogous to a bacterium,” he went on. “At the time of the avian flu in Asia, there was some speculation that it had arrived from space. But normal mutation accounts for Avian flu’s differentness, and in fact it had all the normal types of DNA stands…”

The general made a hand motion, and the gentleman quickly shut up. He stood there, patiently awaiting a barrage of questions.

“Just exactly how dangerous is this thing?” asked the President calmly.

“Unless we can figure out a way to kill it, or unless it runs up against something else that kills it,” sighed the scientist, “Or perhaps weather, maybe pollution…”

“What are you getting at?” gasped the President of the United States.

“If Doctor Moriarity was right in estimating its rate of reproduction and if nothing stops it, it could take over the world, covering every square inch of land, every square inch of the Arctic ice cap, in about three years, Mister President,” the scientist told the stunned, silent members of the briefing circle.

“Bearing in mind we will be taking countermeasures, we probably have a little longer,” he added into the starkly silent room. “Mister President, we require nuclear authorization. Immediately.”

General Taylor stood there nodding vigorously beside him.

“Immediately, Mister President,” said General Taylor. “I plan on having warheads-on-target in about six hours. I need authorization immediately, sir. Or I am prepared to act unilaterally, and to hell with the personal consequences.”

There was a moment of absolute dead silence. The President and his advisers just sat and stared at the screen, and the scientist, and the general. Then consternation broke loose and pandemonium reigned, as everyone was all shouting at once.


(Photos: Austroboletus mutabilis, Roy Halling. Aircraft at Little America: Andrew Mandemaker.
Bottom: ESA/Hubble.)

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Uncle Adolf's Wheelchair.







“The willingness of the worker depends upon his complete confidence in the purchasing power of the currency in which he is paid. As confidence goes, work ceases. We see popular information supplied by a venal press dependent upon advertising and subsidies. There is no science of currency and business psychology to restrain governments from the most disturbing interference with the public credit and the circulation. Modern imperialism is not a synthetic world-uniting movement like the old imperialism, it is a megalomaniac nationalism.” — Herbert George Wells, in his Outline of History.

As many of you may know, he was the author of When the Sleeper Wakes, a chilling look at our modern times from about ninety years ago.

These anti-social ideas always find strong support in the military and official castes, in the enterprising and acquisitive strata of society, in new money that is and big business. Its chief critics are the educated poor and the laboring masses.

Wells is more famous for War of the Worlds, and The Time Machine.

The point is that the majority have lost confidence in a system that was always based on inequities anyway.

I saw my grandfather on the front page of the newspaper. Upon taking a closer look I saw it was the Prime Minister of Canada, wearing the Emperor’s old clothes. Apparently Mister Harper is having a wonderful time in 1898, and would like us to join him. Sorry man — you can never go back. It’s probably a good idea for you to stay, now that you have missed the horse-drawn bus. Why don’t you go burn some coal or something.

The world will become increasingly divided between the have-nots and those who work for the government. Rising social tensions may be dealt with by the simple solution of an increase in the use of force, entrapment, surveillance, and police powers. Dissent or even the asking of questions will be seen as ‘a criminal attitude,’ and mere curiosity will cause suspicion. Simple knowledge will be seen as a pernicious social influence. It will be quietly discouraged by peer pressure and the enhanced use of metaphysical persuasion.

As the bottom of the population pyramid narrows, and the bulge of the baby-boomers reaches a swelling nearer to the top, the top of what was once a pyramid, but now looks more like a ‘lingam,’ (a phallic symbol,) then social instability will reach a crisis point—the so-called, ‘tipping point,’ at which point anything is possible, even social evolution, i.e. that most theoretical of all constructs when dealing with the human animal, ‘change.’

* * *

It is difficult to be objective about the times we live in, especially if one isn’t doing too well. But a historian living in the year 2110 will have an abundance of information and an absence of reliable facts to deal with, in assessing the period 1990-2012. That’s because all the sources are essentially corrupt. None of the data is trustworthy. None of the conclusions drawn and stated at that time may be trusted. They are completely worthless, like a CTV News Channel story on the economy, totally erroneous for unknown reasons. Certain inescapable facts remain.

What truly stands out from this perspective, is that middle-class wages were essentially frozen in terms of real purchasing power. What stands out is that working-class wages were reduced, with barely a murmur; by an estimated thirty to forty percent. It was a corporate war against the middle class, formerly the most powerful bastion of democracy.

What stands out is that the poor plummeted towards third-world status and stayed there. Literate and skilled as they were, it appears they were unwanted, perhaps even actively dissuaded from participation in the polities of the day.

What stands out is that the ethic went from savings to easy credit. Thrift and prudence shifted to waste and crass hedonism. The Free Trade Agreement was sold by government and media as ‘good for all Canadians.’ It was also sold as ‘Good for all Americans.’

How could it work both ways? It was good for the rich and the big international corporations. The national economies grew by leaps and bounds—at the expense of fundamental social values. Exports grew. And consumer debt grew. Bank profits grew.

Hell, even the profits of justice grew, to the extent there was a shortage of warm bodies to fill up all those for-profit prisons...

What stands out is the pervasive and pernicious influence of the mainstream mass media. What stands out is the dis-education of the populace, in spite of rising professional standards of educators, and what stands out is the sheer economic and political weight of the Ontario teacher’s pension fund. What stands out is that no one seemed to notice the results of these monopolistic trends. What stands out is that no one cared. What stands out is that species-survival took second place to next quarter’s bottom line. What stands out is that nothing has really changed in at least two or three thousand years.

Ultimately all archaeology is subjective, although we would like to think of it as pure science. We impose our own values upon these imposing old ruins. We interpret them as best we can. What destroyed this civilization? Did they learn nothing, in spite of their metaphysical certainties? Couldn’t they build temples, sewers, waste disposal sites, courthouses, jails and other government services fast enough? Is it possible that in the midst of all this plenty, they could not feed their own people? Did the people become irrelevant to the Establishment and ultimately an impediment to manifest destiny?

Was it the pseudo-revelations of the mouthpiece economists, all those bought-and-paid-for-opinions? Did they tell the customer what they wanted to hear? Like pollsters? Did the state collapse of its own sheer top-weight? Its own fallacious mythology? Surely it did not collapse from greed, ignorance, decadence and corruption? Did they legislate themselves to death? All the while unable or unwilling to tax those most able to pay?

Surely they must have reaped what they did sow.

Did it collapse from sheer stupidity? The technology of the times would indicate otherwise.

The most ludicrous theory put forward so far is that this society crashed due to a failure of the energy supply. It is difficult to comprehend that primitive peoples built such amazing monuments to their culture, and failed to provide for energy supply.

Did they not understand that energy, just as matter, space and time, mind-stuff and self are infinite in the universe? Was it mere perverse self-delusion, a willful self-delusion on the part of the bourgeoisie? One theory, which has received a great deal of attention, is that they choked on their own waste.

The ancient philosopher once said, “One gets out of it what one puts into it.”

What did he mean by that? And why did he carve it on a monolith in the public square?

The end was near. Why bother? And what was meant by ‘globalization?’

When archaeologists truly understand what was meant by that most mysterious of terms, then perhaps we will be a little closer to understanding what actually happened here.

Until then, keep digging. You never know what might turn up.

I once dug up an entire set of Elvis collector plates. They’re in the Solar Federation Museum. Perhaps you’ve been there? That’s how I got appointed High Priest.

Now I’m set for life.

The only constant in the cosmos is change. Except for human nature. It is unchangeable.

The God-King has decreed it, and the media has proclaimed it.

But what really strikes home about this micro-epoch is that the paradigm shifted.

No longer did the state exist to serve the people, or even in its most extreme application, to serve the odd highly-privileged individual. At some point the individual existed to serve the state. That was the tipping point. Enlightened self-interest was no longer possible, for it no longer paid any dividends to the individual. The state became an insatiable sponge, sucking up all surplus. It became a moral deadweight, perpetuating itself at the expanse of the life-force of the weltfolk.

This was not a conscious decision, on the part of society, groups of people or individuals.

It was an intuitive, collective decision; a phenomenon of mass hysteria, a kind of fin-de-siecle feeling spread by mass media and example, word of mouth and the slavish imitation of one’s peers. It was a mob.

When there was no longer any incentive, then there was no longer any effort, and the corruption of society was complete. That was the tipping-point, and from that point onward, society was doomed.

* * *

When power and authority collapses, it leaves a vacuum. The disabled must step into that vacuum, and be prepared to wield power—to act for the common good of the weltfolk—and to finally stand astride the world, with our heads brushing the clouds like some kind of God-damned colossus. For only then shall we truly be free. Only then shall we be truly strong again. The world must tremble at our feet, and we must plant a foot on its neck.

As we journey together into the end times, the disabled must be prepared to lead as it is better than being eaten or sacrificed upon the altar of conservative economics.

As the undead, we have learned to survive in a weird, half-lit world of darkness, despair and a melancholy, philosophical solitude; where truth is lies and perception is no longer reality but a kind of sly innuendo, a whispered, collective and conspiratorial injustice.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Hydra.


“What?”

When the phone rang, I had no intention of working, no matter who called or what the job entailed. Tony Di Bianco was hard to say no to. With Tony you are polite.

“I need you to get rid of something for me.” It was his bum-boy Tazio the Knife.

Tony never talks on the phone. It's beneath his dignity. Presumably, he must have talked to his kids or his wife or his mother on the phone, or someone, during the course of his lifetime.

Tazio is a total lunatic. He never cares. A proper guy should wise up and assume someone is always listening. He would be right happy to go to jail and do twenty-five-to-life for his old friend Tony. Tazio’s a bug in every sense of the word. He worships Tony.

“I’m very sorry, you must have the wrong number.” I grumbled, dead tired after a long day.

I promptly hung up, but that was just our way.

An hour and a half later, I was sitting a little bleary-eyed in a back booth at the truck stop near the main Highway 401 interchange. My tail was clean, and I was using my spare car and my spare name. I just don’t know who I am anymore. It helps to be stone cold sober, and I got no wants and warrants and nothing up my sleeve. My prints aren’t on file anywhere. I’m never armed, and I never carry dope. Honestly, I have nothing to worry about. All I could do was to sit and wait and try not to worry.

Finally another guy came in. It was Phil, and thank God for that. So far, plenty of truckers and travelers had come and gone. I was getting a little antsy, what with the imagination working overtime and the knowledge of who I was dealing with. It is extremely hard to turn down work from these guys, and I was wondering what I had been tapped for. I was happy enough that it wasn’t Tazio or Tony.

I waved him over. Phil and I are troubleshooters. He’s got a full-time gig. I’m kind of a subcontractor. It’s like working on permit from the union local.

“Hey, Brad. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“Hey, that’s okay, Phil."

He ordered coffee. We chit-chatted about sweet nothings. He had a wife and kid, I once had a wife and kid, and we always make sure to ask about each other’s wives and kids, right? He commiserated on my loss, but I told him not to make a big thing out of it.

“I prefer to try and forget.”

We went on to the Blue Jays, and then the waitress brought him a coffee and she was kind enough to refill mine. I handed her a ten and said “Thanks.” Being able to take a hint, she screwed off and stayed off.

Brad swilled the coffee down quicker than anything, but then all of us have iron guts and gravel-bottomed throats. He probably wanted to get home to the family.

We stepped outside and swapped keys. Phil told me to lose the blue plastic barrel in the back of his black pickup truck, a Dodge with a V-10 motor. Phil’s not an idiot. He had it strapped down properly, which is not easy to do with a barrel. I wouldn’t want that to come in through the back window.

“Any suggestions?”

“Not really. Just stop into the barber shop tomorrow and drop the truck off. If you come at eight, I’ll drive you home before I open up. If not, we’ll make arrangements later.”

“Any idea what’s in it?” I wasn’t that curious, but if there was a body in there, it would be helpful to know.

The contents of the barrel would have some bearing in my choice of disposal, obviously, and Phil gave it a moment’s thought.

“Pour it out into a pond or a ditch somewhere. Then take the barrel to a car wash and wash it out. I don’t know, blast off the label and squish it up or something and toss it out somewhere five miles down the road. Chuck the barrel anywhere, I suppose.”

“I could drop the barrel off near the barrel factory. I’ll go down Oil Patch Road and toss it over the back fence.”

An empty plastic barrel shouldn’t be too heavy. I worked in the recycling area when I was fourteen. Them old steel barrels, still half full of chemicals, solvents or motor oil or whatever, were pretty hard to handle, at least for a skinny kid.

"Sure. No one would even care. Anyway, Mister Bawnz can’t take the shipment right now. All those congressional hearings. They won’t do nothing to him, but it’s just too hot right now.”

“Okay, whatever." I would have preferred to know even less. “Do you think he’ll make the Hall of Fame?”

He grinned at that. Bawnz had the hits and the fans wanted another myth.

“Of course. I got a lot of money riding on it.” He had a gleam in his eye.

I was damned glad it wasn’t a corpse, although there are ways to liquefy a body. But then it wouldn’t have been such a rush job.

Phil handed me a thick wad of bills, and that was pretty much it. “Put it in number thirteen-twelve. Leave the keys under the passenger-side floor mat and lock the car,” I said.

“Okay.” He grinned and we shook hands.

All Phil had to do was to drop off my spare car and then walk two blocks and call a cab. If he was worried about leaving a trail, he could walk maybe ten or twelve blocks and be home in half an hour.

* * *

“The common pond hydra is a small, freshwater animal,” Detective Sergeant Andreas Papadopolous told me four days later, from across the little desk in the interview cubicle.

His angry black eyebrows, almost a mono-brow at the best of times, met heavily in the middle. His black mustache, thick and long enough to stick out past the end of his nose, quivered in outrage, but then we were friends once. We played Little League softball on the same team. Our team always came in last place, as I recall. In my whole career, I hit one home run, and I had one single-handed double play to my credit. I caught a fly ball and some guy was leading off from second base just a little too far. Dead easy. My homer took a funny bounce off the fence in the smallest of the parks we played in, and the fielder tripped and lost his glasses. No Hall of Fame for me. Maybe I should have gotten onto the steroids.

“So?”

"In order to capture food and for self-defense it has a kind of poison. It has stinging cells in, ah, the ectodermic layer. These critters are normally pretty small, Brad.” Some deep tension lurked below the surface.

“And?”

“It’s just that when a hydra is cut up, even into fairly small pieces, it has the ability to regrow, like a lizard that loses its tail. They re-grow into whole and complete individuals. You kill one and you end up with four or five of them. It just doesn’t seem fair, does it? It’s just that you’re not such a bad guy, and it’s just that you went through some tough times, what with the losing your house and stuff, Mary and little Bradley getting killed by that drunk driver and all. You know we’re all genuinely sorry and all that. We’re just trying to keep you out of trouble here, Brad.”

“What are you implying?” The key thing is to be patient with the cops.

Amateurs think they can talk their way out of it and somehow go home at night. It’s the amateurs that fill up this nation’s jails. My lawyer will be here tomorrow for the bail hearing, and then I can go get a good meal and be at home and in my own bed by tomorrow night. And I’ll never do another minute in jail, at least not on this bogus little beef.

“What I am implying, is that you made a run for Tony Di Bianco, and that while you really didn’t know what you were doing... I mean, how could you know what a two-hundred-something litre drum full of concentrated growth hormone would do to a pond full of innocent little organisms? Uh... you are in one hell of a lot of trouble.” He growled.

“What are you saying?” I allowed just the slightest tone of rising impatience to creep into my voice and my demeanor. “What are you getting at?”

“What I am getting at is that now we have four people dead and an unknown number of ten-foot tall hydras. They’re running around in suburbia. They’re following the old river and the canal. We don’t know where they’re going to pop up next. They’re kind of hard to kill, and you really haven’t lived until you’ve seen your best friend and partner of fifteen years sucked in and ingested by one of those things.”

Andreas broke off for a moment to take a couple of deep breaths.

“And if you don’t wipe that smirk off your face, I’m...” He broke off in red-faced anger as a heavy knock came at the one-way mirror on the wall.

Detective Papadopolous — whom I had grown up with and gone to elementary school with — got up and stalked out of the room. His only other option would have been to beat the living crap out of me. It’s what I would have done if the situation were reversed.

“I don’t believe any of this.” There were guys behind the mirror. “Anyway, screw you if you can’t take a joke!”

* * *

They couldn’t charge me with anything. I bet they tried that scam on ten other guys. We all fit the same kind of profile or something. There was one bad moment when I wondered if maybe they had me somewhere on a surveillance camera. None of them other suspects knew anything more than I did, and arguably less. Tony and Phil’s names were never mentioned, except by the cops.

A few of the boys came around and picked me up in a limo a few days later. We got pretty drunk, at least I did, and they were all saying how Big Tony owes me. I never knew I had so many friends. All good guys, really.

As for the offer they made, I’ll have to think about that one for a while. It all depends on what he wants me to do. Sooner or later the authorities will kill off the last of those hydra-thingies, according to the news boys. Maybe we’ll get a couple of really cold winters in a row or something. That will probably kill them.

Now I’m on my way with the family firm if I want. There may still be time to back out. It’s better than social assistance, food banks, soup kitchens, and geared-to-income housing. There's no future in that. Tony takes the whole crew to Florida for a month every year. It’s first class all the way. This is the greatest country in the world.

END

This story originally appeared in Bewildering Stories.

Pictures: Lareaen Hydra, Gustave Moreau. Top: Daniel Stroupin, freshwater hydra. (Wiki.)


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gotchimon.




The whole town is breathing a collective sigh of relief. Today it was announced that the working class antihero ‘Gotchimon’ was arrested. Capable of leaping a tall outhouse with a single bound, faster than a speeding electric scooter, the man of pig iron, the man of kleenex finally got caught.

That’s not to say that he didn’t have admirers, because he did.

Gotchimon had been haunting parks, trails, and remote wooded areas within the city limits.

He liked to jump out and scare people, especially pimply-faced fat girls, who should in the opinion of this writer have appreciated the attention perhaps a little more than they did. Really, they should have been flattered by all the attention. A pudgy man in his Adonis-style underwear and a Nixon mask is a kind of unusual sight, even around here, but not exactly unheard of. The camouflaged, insulated, heavily lugged assault clogs were a nice fashion touch.

It’s hard to say what happened to Gotchimon. He started off well enough, drawing attention to the fact that this is a pretty boring little town, with insufficient recreation facilities for the poor, the lame, the sick, the weak, and those too cheap to buy a movie ticket or spend six dollars for a short glass of watery draft beer. Those who refused to rent a pair of bowling shoes, taking the chance of Plantar’s warts and foot fungus. Those who were too lazy to walk anywhere, or too cheap to get a dog for companionship, or perhaps they were too old to buy a skateboard and commute to the employment centre on a daily basis.

This is top secret, okay? But I used to hang out with Gotchimon. We went to high school together. Gotchimon was the one who was always sneaking into the girl’s shower room when the rest of us were clustered around the physical education instructor’s office, making a poor pretence that we didn’t understand the schedule. We were a diversion, and he did the dirty work.

We made a good team, the small group of us, mostly in our first year of high school.

Although Rene Beddenracker was a college dropout who had a beard, and spent much of the day hanging out in the staff lounge, trying to pick up chicks. Gotchimon had started off as a fairly normal boy, and at the time, the little palm-sized video recorder had seemed like a fun and easy way to make a scene and keep it going. It was all in good fun, and with the mask and the pink polka-dotted briefs, he never got caught. No one could give a description without breaking up in laughs, and the authorities thought it was a prank on the part of the victims. Most people who complained about it, ended up in detention, writing lines and quite frankly learning a valuable lesson about authority.

I think it was the adrenalin. He got addicted to his own brain chemicals. It was the thrill of the chase, the stalking of the game that got him. One wonders what might have happened if he had ever attempted to take it to the next logical step, the next level of the game. Gotchimon was traumatized as a very small boy, and I think it affected him badly.

I got the story from the friend of a friend, so I know it’s true.

It seems that old man Brady was looking for a pet, one that wouldn’t cost too much, and in fact the city had recently passed a cat-bylaw. People were complaining about cats crapping in the window-boxes, although I say it was raccoons and possums, as the window boxes were invariably up about the fourth floor. But no one ever listens to me. Anyhow, some crazy farmer who was going bankrupt, couldn’t wait for the provincial government to hand over five or ten million bucks to bail him out again this year, and so he was giving away all the livestock on his farm, that is to say anything he couldn’t comfortably eat.

Old man Brady was going up and down the side-roads picking up bottles and cans, as he was on a full provincial disability pension, and consequently starving to death, a long, slow, drawn out death. The federal government has just passed the “Right to die with dignity act,” after long consultations with various interest groups, such as the chemical industry, the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry, and the ear-candling and aromatherapy industry. So maybe things will get better for the disabled. It’s hard to say. Old man Brady had terminal flatulence, and so he was unemployable, if not outright disabled.

The short story is that old man Brady offered to take something small off of his hands, and he promised to look after it, and feed it, and walk it, and love it, and sleep with it. He promised that he would be a good owner, and that it was going to a good home, so the farmer gave him a duck.

The farmer gave him a duck out of the sheer goodness of his heart, hard as that is to believe.

Old man Brady was going home with that duck under his arm, when he passed a movie theatre. He couldn’t help but notice that a movie he had been waiting months to see was in town.

Old man Brady still had forty bucks left from his cheque. I guess it must have been cheque day, and he wanted to see that movie real bad. His rent was paid, and his dope dealer was on vacation in Cozumel, so he figured what did he need forty bucks for? He could always go to the soup kitchen a day earlier, or tomorrow, in other words.

So he shoved the duck down his pants, bought a ticket and went in to see the movie. At first, everything was fine, as he didn’t get out much. So even the opening credits, the grand symphonic overture to the film, was the best music he had heard in years and he was enjoying himself. It was nice to forget his problems for a while.

The movie theatre was crowded, and the movie got going, and old man Brady was really enjoying himself, when the duck began to get a little cramped in there. It started squirming around, and it was clearly uncomfortable in such close quarters. Taking a quick look around, old man Brady made sure all eyes were on the screen. Feeling himself to be safe enough, he opened up his zipper, and gently pulled the duck’s head out so that it could breathe properly, and look around, and that was fine as far as it went. He figured the duck might like to watch ‘Rocky XIV.’

But my old friend Gotchimon was sitting in the seat right next to him, as it was his birthday and his Aunt Shelley had taken him to the movies, as a special birthday treat. I guess he must have been about fourteen years old at that point, which is a pretty impressionable age.

All of a sudden he was pulling on Aunt Shelley’s arm, and whispering fiercely, and she just wanted to watch the movie.

“What is it?” she hissed in some impatience.

“The man next to me is exposing himself,” gasped the young fellow who would go on to become Gotchimon.

“Just ignore it,” advised his Aunt Shelley. “Maybe he’ll stop…”

“But it’s eating my popcorn!” complained Gotchimon.

So that’s probably what set Gotchimon off all those years ago, the ruckus, the uproar, all the women in the audience screaming, and all the men running around trying to catch that darned duck…all the attention that old man Brady got for that little escapade. It was in all the papers, and he was even on the TV, although at first the cops couldn’t figure out what to charge him with. Eventually they decided he was insane, and now he lives in a town not far from here. He wrote my weird Uncle Bob, once, and told him he’s doing fine, with his own room and everything, and all the crazy sex he ever wanted, and he even has pets, although why anyone would want to keep a rat in a hat-box is anyone’s guess.

It sleeps on the corner of his bed, or so Uncle Bob told me.

So that’s probably why Gotchimon was running round in a mask and his underwear—that’s what the slang word ‘gotchies’ means here in Canada—and according to Occam’s Razor, ‘all other things being equal, the simplest explanation must be the truth.’

Gotchimon had admirers, almost as many as the Mayor, one of those perpetual bachelors, although his secretary would marry him if she could just get him in front of a preacher. I figure if she can’t marry the Mayor, there’s plenty of guys on death row in the States, and why not try one of them guys? It would be about as much fun as marrying the Mayor, that’s for sure.

I know the police sergeant that busted him, a habitual liar, who shaves his legs, and claims to be a cyclist, although no one has ever seen him on a bike. But that’s another story. Anyhow, they got Gotchimon for ‘voyeurism,’ and ‘wearing a mask while committing an indictable offence.’

The sergeant, who earns about ninety thousand bucks a year, and allegedly an expert on psychological crimes, doesn’t apparently know the difference between voyeurism and exhibitionism! But that’s okay, as neither do the local criminal court judges. They’re all fifty-year-old unmarried women, and quite frankly it looks pretty bad for Gotchimon.

I figure they’ll send him up the creek for a long time. Maybe he’ll end up sharing a room with old man Brady, and they can talk about old times, sit there and watch porn movies, and compare notes on how best to abuse oneself.

I guess you could say the story has come full circle. And everybody likes a happy ending.

END

(Photo by 'Noodle Snacks, Wiki Commons.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Vampire Ballerina.




The water closet gurgled alarmingly but she had no time to call the handyman.

Madame Pilon rounded the corner and almost tripped on the small and delicate figure of Emilie.

“Oh, dear, do you need to use the chamber?” she asked, for the use of Francais was one way she instilled higher culture, an awareness of a greater world into her young charges.

Emilie was about seven.

“No, Madame,” the lisping, half-whisper came in reply.

“Well, what is it, then?” Madame Pilon asked.

Emilie’s hand came up and she was about to suck her thumb, something Madame Pilon would not abide in her classes.

“Please don’t do that,” said Madame Pilon. “Come along then, we must begin the class.”

“I don’t want to,” said Emilie, turning her face away, and then looking back.

She clung to Madame Pilon’s legs, the top of her head obscured by the floating, shimmering tutu the madame wore when instructing.

Madame Pilon gently tried to pry her off.

“Emilie! What is the matter?” asked Madame Pilon.

“Marjorie’s being bad,” said Emilie, sucking her thumb in earnest. “I don’t like her anymore.”

“Oh, well, don’t you worry, we’ll soon put a stop to that,” Madame Pilon assured the child. “Come along now, let’s go dance and have some fun.”

Holding on to Madame Pilon’s left hand, Emilie struggled manfully to resist, and to hold Madame Pilon from going into the studio.

“Emilie!” gasped Madame Pilon. “What is the matter with you?”

“She’s a vampire,” said Emilie in a breathless revelation.

Madame Pilon threw her head back and laughed.

“Oh, Emilie! You are so precious,” she said, patting the wide-eyed child on the top of the head.

Dragging the child along the hardwood flooring of the hallway, with her little slipper-clad feet forlornly scrabbling in protest, Madame Pilon rounded the corner, laughing and giggling and trying to jolly the child along.

Emilie, clearly frightened or kicking up a fuss for some reason, wriggled and pulled and struggled to get away. Madame Pilon would have none of such misbehaviour in her school.

“Now, you must participate in the class, Emilie,” she said. “I don’t want to get in trouble with your mommy!”

“No! No!” cried Emilie, tears streaming down her round face. “I don’t want to!”

Madame Pilon pulled Emilie into the room, almost over-balancing herself, and turning, gently pushed the little girl over in the general direction of the long wall with its mirrors and the bar.

Faces in the mirrors regarded her in horror from all sides.

The silence was horrendous.

A cluster of little girls huddled in the far corner, faces white, and a deathly stillness hung over them.

Monseiur Arpeggio lay on the highly polished parquet, beside his piano, in an ever-widening pool of bright red blood. His dead eyes stared accusingly at the slowly turning ceiling fan as if to ask one final question.

Madame Pilon stood rigid in shock, staring at the smeared, wet, bloody little red footprints on the floor. Her mouth opened to scream. She heard a snuffling sound behind her and she spun around.

Marjorie was there, with dark red stains all over her normally pristine tutu. Her face was red and wet, and covered in gore.

She had a wild look in her eyes. Madame Pilon’s hand flew up to her mouth, staring at the unthinkable, the incomprehensible.

Marjorie took two steps and was upon her, clinging, clambering, crawling up her front…Madame Pilon screamed at the strength of the little girl, and the look in her eyes, and the fangs, and the blood all over the place.

Madame Pilon screamed, and screamed and screamed, but there was nothing to be done about it.


END

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Monday, December 17, 2012

Untitled. Excerpt WIP.






“I want you to get something for me.” Teddy was a pompous ass, but he paid well and had the nucleus of a good operation.

“Some Prince fancies himself a racing driver?” Dan watched the croupier, sure that this was it.

“Another card.” Teddy was not very drunk tonight.

Maybe later.

“You always want something.” Thornton was holding at eighteen, with the Ace of Hearts and the Seven of Clubs, which as any fool knows is a pretty good hand.

The game was Blackjack, good old twenty-one.

Teddy nodded in simple justice. Dan Thornton was one of his newest operatives, one with a lot of potential. The problem was in getting him to take it seriously

“Hit me.” Teddy looked at the card and grimaced, but held comment.

Dan didn’t care for politics, and he had no great ideological concerns. If only he wasn’t so caught up in the dream. A more cynical outlook might have been helpful. The man didn’t have a political bone in his body.

Teddy suppressed a giggle, which wouldn’t be seemly. Tonight Theodore Swainson, Lord Rokeby, was on his best behaviour, and speaking in his posh accent. He had a few of them, as Dan knew, his working class and Cockney accents would have done him good service if he went into vaudeville, or what passed for it over here, the British music hall circuit. Dan supposed in its own way, it was much like the racing circuit, and a bit of a hand-to-mouth existence for the actual performers of that fine art of mimicry. As a spy, it came in handy no doubt. Dan had seen him in action, and he was good. He had one of those pale, shapelessly ovoid faces that without that bit of a mustache, the hair dyed and combed differently, could be almost anyone, male or female, of a certain height and weight.

The game went on, quietly and professionally.

It was time, and they showed their cards. Teddy had held at fifteen.

The croupier grunted and lugubriously shoved a stack of money at Thornton. The impression he gave was one of sheer boredom, but the repressed glitter of humour was there in his eyes. The game was rigged, for a modest fee. A close observer would have seen that what Dan won corresponded pretty nearly to what Teddy lost, and then the house got their percentage as well. This was a good way to pay agents, and Dan had an appointment in town anyway. He had left a suit for alterations, and it was on the way to Italy, where he had another appointment.

If anyone asked, he could at least account for the money. He had paid taxes on it and everything.

The casino was a watering hole for big predators and small fish. Which Thornton turned out to be was entirely up to him. Working on the assumption that all governments are corrupt in all kinds of little ways, and Monte was no different than other places, meant that Dan had to show up if he wanted to get paid, and it was perfect cover for a professional driver. They tended to live large and die in spectacular fashion. It was not unheard of for them to leave a good-looking corpse, although it was kind of rare. Teddy wasn’t lackadaisical or irrational. It was sheer random arbitrariness, of a kind that must have made it hard for any foreign counterintelligence service to keep up with his movements, at least not without blowing their own cover.

Dan always looked forward to the game, but to him, the enjoyment was in the winning, or rather the illusion of winning. Maybe it was just the illusion that he could win. For part-time work, it paid very well and he needed the money to continue with racing in Europe.

“What is it this time?”

“A friend needs to see you.”

“You don’t have any friends.”

“True.”

They waited while cards were dealt.

“I want you to see a man.”

“And?”

“Listen to what he has to say.”

“And then?”

“He’ll give you a package.”

“What? That’s it?”

“What if something goes wrong? Presumably this is something, um, interesting.”

Dan wasn’t all that curious, but he needed to know the risks.

“Yes, it’s valuable and important.” He held Dan’s eye for a second to drive home the point.

Teddy smiled. He was here to gamble, and he had a big pile of chips.

“You’ll know what to do.” His eyes swiveled back to the table.

“It’s not so much the judgment, although yours is considerable. It’s the speed. We’d like to avoid complications.” Teddy pulled out a slip of paper and gave it to Dan.

It was the usual sort of a place.

“You’ll recognize the person who comes. The pickup is in Geneva.”

Teddy had his own special little branch working out of the basement of Whitehall and he knew all sorts of people. He never made the mistake of believing any of them were his friends.

Dan debated whether or not to put a little down on another hand, but he doubted if the croupier, who had just shuffled up with a fresh set of cards, would be so generous now that Teddy had tipped him a microscopic nod. Teddy’s eyes widened at something or someone and a scent washed over his left shoulder.

“Well, well, well. Dan Thornton.” The throaty, husky voice, smooth in its timbre, was enough to make any man sit up and take notice.

It took a moment for it to sink in. A chill went over him and the hair on his neck prickled in shock. He turned, and froze when he met those eyes and comprehended the meaning in the lady’s sardonic grin. She had her chin up. Dan Thornton had always been a sucker for a lady with a good chin, and she had dark blue eyes too.

It was her, all right, and after all these years, she was as beautiful as ever.

It was like a trap door opening up under him all over again.

END   Note: The year is 1938 and the action takes place in the casino at Monte Carlo. Dan's a racing driver, and perpetually short of money. Readers are welcome to check out my books on Smashwords, where 'The Handbag's Tale,' a short story in the noir detective tradition, can currently be had in all formats for free.

Fear Conditioning.



by The Evil Dr. Schmitt-Rottluff.




The intertwined dance of aggressor and victim reveals the social complexity of the encounter. Does fear ever go away?

This phenomenon has been studied in an emotional spin on good old Pavlovian conditioning in a variant called fear conditioning. An unsuspecting laboratory animal is introduced into a dimly lit cage, which is equipped with a speaker and wired with a floor grid. In the initial session, an unfamiliar but otherwise innocuous tone beeps into the chamber for a minute or two.

The mildly curious rodent pads around the cell, sniffing its environment, but is otherwise unconcerned by the noise. In the second session, “the fun begins.” When the beeping starts, so does a mild electric shock to the feet of the animal. The creature crouches and trembles, its cardiovascular system ratcheting up into overdrive. It only takes a few sessions, sometimes as little as a single session, and the connection between the tone and the painful electric jolt is firmly cemented in the creature’s mind.

Very quickly the sound alone is enough to elicit the fear response; and the rodent freezes in place, heart rate racing, blood pressure soaring to three or even four times the values observed in the initial pain-inducing sessions.

What is even more striking about this research, the associations between fear and environment are so strongly forged that many researchers believe they may be permanent.

“A period of safety illustrates this lingering power of conditioned fear. If the tone sounds many, many times without the shock, the intensity of the rat’s fearful response slowly decays, neurobiologists call this deceptive calm extinction. But the connection between fear and sound hasn’t dissolved; it has merely retreated underground. One shock—or even the rat equivalent of an overwrought Monday morning—and the fear circuit is reactivated,” according to Debra Niehoff, Ph. D. “The rat cowers in a corner of the cage, clearly anticipating the long-ago shock. The brain has not erased the fearful memory, it has simply created…a fragile detour that can be blasted away by stress or familiar environmental cues.”

The briefest exposure to stress can have profound results on behaviour. In a procedure known as time-dependent sensitization, (as described in the previous chapter,) a mouse was placed in one chamber of a two-room test cage. Ten seconds later, a light was flashed and a door revealed to reveal a nice, inviting, dark escape hole. When they darted in, they received a stiff shock.

For the next six weeks, the mice were returned to the lighted chamber for one minute every week. The door was kept closed, but the animals were periodically reminded of their previous experience. With each reminder, these stress-sensitive mice became more and more fearful. They jumped higher and faster at sudden noises, when placed in a maze, they exhibited symptoms of fear, some crouching in corners and others racing from wing to wing of the maze. Of the original thirty animals, twenty-five never completed the experiment, having killed each other in episodes of vicious fighting.

The neurons, the neural pathways regulating fear turn out to be very similar to those regulating aggression, and can be kindled by the same stimuli.

The response to stimuli can change over time, and the initial response to the first incident of harassment can be quite muted. Reports from veterans dating back to WW I, plus more recent work into PTSD has shown veterans, as well as adult survivors of physical and sexual abuse during childhood, had significant deficits in short-term memory. This is especially true for the recall of verbal information.

But even hardened and objective researchers were taken aback by the results of MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans in a group of twenty-six veterans with PTSD and a carefully matched control group of twenty-two other subjects.

Patients with PTSD had clear evidence of a structural defect, an average eight per cent reduction of an area on the right side of the brain in the region of the hippocampus; and the greater the area reduction observed, the greater the memory deficit. High levels of stress and threat over a long period of time, cause structural and functional changes in the brain.

Simply put, a single spouse with dependent children undergoing harassment will suffer long term effects, even after the situation is resolved. “Harassment is the gift that keeps on giving.” The children will also suffer long-term effects. In a recent editorial in a community newspaper it was stated, “The children of broken homes cause huge costs for society.”

“Trauma not only leaves visible marks we can observe on the outside, imaging studies suggest that it also leaves marks we can observe on the inside,” according to a well-known researcher, John Krystal.

Whether trauma is the result of violence in combat, a criminal act, or parental rage, brain imaging demonstrates that one reason victims can’t “just get over it,” is that the violence has been almost literally “seared into their brain.”

Adrenaline is well known for its ability to crank up heart rate, respiration and metabolism in the face of an emergency. But it is the sympathetic nervous system and norepinephrine, the chemical precursor of adrenaline that alerts the adrenal glands in the first place, this triggers the heart, lungs, vasculature, (e.g. increased blood flow), stomach, and muscles. Thus the familiar symptoms of emotional arousal.

The perception of threat is a brain process. Alarming events, disturbing thoughts, even the apprehension caused by the arrival of an envelope from a lawyer or the income tax people; wakes up the sympathetic nervous system and triggers defensive responses.

This is the neural aspect of the flight or fight decision-making process.

Painful to remember, trauma cannot be forgotten. Symptoms like flashbacks and intrusive memories are part of emotional memory, the darker side of a neural process that can also remember in exquisite detail every aspect of the birth of a child.

So are the intense feelings of fear, rage, and panic that survivors experience when confronted with even the most trivial similarities between events in the present and violent events or traumatic events in the past. Their bodies continue to react to certain physical and emotional stimuli as if there were a continuing sense of annihilation. Fear conditioning stimulates the startle reflex in humans. Researchers at the National Centre for Post-traumatic Stress Disorder reported that eye blink responses to a blast of white noise were significantly higher in Desert Storm veterans suffering from PTSD and women who had suffered childhood abuse, compared to otherwise normal test subjects.

The consequences of violence, the terror of seconds suspended between life and death, do not vanish, for they have been burnt into our memory banks. Impossible to erase, they are all too easily reawakened.

END

(Photo: white rat in sleep deprivation experiment. If he falls asleep, he gets wet. Jean-Etienne Poirrier.)

The Evil Dr. Schmitt-Rottluff also appears in 'On the Nature of the Gods,' available from Amazon and other fine online retailers. This links to the paperback version.