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NaNoWriMo WP

Felinity Rules

The world is once again about to end. As the title suggests, cats are involved.

There’s a bored one, a big one and the black one. That black feline could be considered huge, if it was willing to fit into this kind of category.

Three humans are doing their occasionally heroic best to cope with the mess. They are more or less bored and black, just like the cats, but none of them is big. This makes saving the world a tad harder, but will look fabulous in a screen adaptation.

Please find below the most recent daily output:

2018-11-12

Sipping away at a glass of water, to dilute an overdose of sweetness, Uzo contemplates calling her mother, or her sister. The Felinity challenge could be be imminent. Once it starts, she’ll be terribly busy. She doesn’t know in which way, but Safo was adamant that she would be, and the old lioness is the topmost available authority on the subject. 

After some wavering, Uzo decides not to call Lagos. This doesn’t feel like the right moment to listen to one more admonition to keep on track and prove she’s worth the big investment. Nor does she feel ready for the next dose of sisterly consumerism. 

When the facilitator warned her, about the loneliness of the illicit migrant, she shrugged. “If there’s one thing I’m used to,” she told herself, “it’s loneliness. Not fitting in, lacking friends, the whole panoply of wondering what’s wrong and keeps me from bonding, I’ve been handling that for like forever, certainly for the relevant parts of my life. More of the same, so what’s?”

Back home in Lagos, Uzo was genuinely convinced, of her ability to cope with all flavors of loneliness. Nothing like regular practice, to implement a successful routine. Right now, she’s discovering totally new dimensions of the phenomenon.

It’s one thing to lack a best friend, without counting Ruzo the Resourceful, when nothing of any interest ever happens. It’s nice to be able to share the tale of a particularly grueling commute, an especially untimely power outage or an exceedingly dysfunctional segment of officialdom, but not exactly necessary. Everybody reports this kind of incident, all the time. Tell it or don’t, face-to-face or on social networks, one more or less doesn’t make a difference.

What hurts, and Uzo is by now doubly aware how much it does, is living an adventure, something really extraordinary, all alone. 

Telling the good old daily routine kind of incidents only ever triggers a cascade of corresponding tales. Everybody has been there, done or endured that kind of episode.

Not so for Uzo’s adventure. Successfully making it into Schengen land, by means of a clever stratagem, that would be something well worth listening to. Even the most migration averse Lagosian wouldn’t want to miss that tale. 

Everybody knows it’s possible to pull this off, with the right kind of money. Very literally everybody. Mister and miss Olagundoye senior, Uzo’s parents, otherwise wouldn’t have managed to find a facilitator. But this general awareness doesn’t mean people know how it’s done.

They haven’t got the foggiest. Most speculation involves the assumption of some kind of bribery.

Not surprising, because people extrapolate from the familiar. Natural for Nigerians, to think corruption, forged documents, bought certificates. Feels evident and is complete off the mark.

The false French identity card Uzo carried on the Cannes to Karlsruhe leg of her journey was never destined for active use, just a fallback precaution. All that big stack of money, minus a well deserved profit component for the facilitator, went into travel expenses. 

All the details of the trip only serve one purpose, to inconspicuously reach the destination, in Uzo’s case German. A yacht screaming filthy rich at the world doesn’t get searched for illegal refugees. For illicit money or substances, perhaps, if only very rarely. For the visa-short, no, not at all, never. One more or less black person in service attire catering to the rich, that’s not a difference anyone will care to notice. A minibus ferrying the more expendable section of the workforce to their next, that’s not a promising target for a paperwork check.

Most Lagosians would love to hear about this, and try to raise the money to give it a try. Which is why the facilitator promised to get Uzo killed in case she blabs.

The second part of the stratagem is even more clever. And Uzo feels bad about it, despite Ruzo the Resourceful’s insistence she’s doing no one no harm, not adding to anyone’s plight. He has a point, but Uzo is ashamed of this part anyway.

In the good old days, both ladies and gents would travel to Schengen land. They had to pick from a set of political scenarios and learn corresponding details, to be able to convince their asylum claim processors they were at risk of serious harm in their home country, e.g. Nigeria.

The lucky ones, or perhaps just the most skilled high performers, would be granted full political asylum, including the right to invite spouses and offspring. The jackpot. The rest would have to make do with a so-called exceptional leave to remain. A lesser status, non-permanent, but people still got to stay for a while, and were granted work permits.

Those good old days, for those wealthy enough to pay a facilitator, were abruptly terminated by the EU decision to declare Nigeria, among many other African nations, a safe place. No more political refugee recognitions, no renewal of exceptional leave to remain status. No way for Uzo’s twin brothers to attain a legal status, unless perhaps, and only perhaps, if they were willing to claim being gay. An option Uzo’s facilitator prefers not to offer, on ground if religions qualms.

Nowadays, there’s only one reliable path to legal residence. If a girl or lady is a victim of human trafficking, if she is is willing to denounce her traffickers and if she is prepared to go to court, the prosecutors want her around as chief witness. They will make sure she’s granted asylum.

A lot of ifs. Too many for the typical victims of the scourge of modern day slavery. They’d rather get themselves deported than denounce the perpetrators. Even after having suffered abuse too horrendous to recount. It’s just too dangerous, for them and their loved ones back home.

Uzo’s clever facilitator spotted the demand, for victims willing to denounce their traffickers. He also noticed how easy it was to identify some such perpetrators. Not the big fish doing people and drugs at the transcontinental level. Known they are, but also way too dangerous to target.

Not so for the smaller fry. Many a Libyan dealer with the means to extort money from hapless villagers trying and failing their luck is scary only on a very local and close-uplevel, for the people he holds for ransom, but unable to strike back when hit by professional opponents.

To make sure some of these baddies get prosecuted, Uzo’s facilitator has each of his parcels, as he calls the ladies traveling with his support, learn by heart a story and a matching set of details pointing straight at a very real Libyan slaveholder. They show up at a shelter for battered women, physically unharmed because the merchandise is supposed to be delivered ‘fresh and in good condition’, and tell a tale of a perfidious trap followed by a lucky escape.

Uzo’s story involved a putative Au-Pair job with a marine biologist in the lovely coastal town of Stralsund up in Northern Germany. It went like this:

Some friend forwarded her a twitter call for Au-Pair applications, preferably from biology students.  A couple of direct messages later, she invested all her savings into a ticket to Cairo. There she was supposed to meet her future boss and his wife on their holiday. The paperwork would be completed at the German embassy, and then they would fly on to Germany.

That fairy tale didn’t happen. She was picked up at the airport all right, by a taxi driver. He delivered her at a hotel, smaller and less international looking than expected, but still according to plan. She was served a soda in the lobby, while waiting for her future boss. Next she woke up in the back of what must have been a van, handcuffed and blindfolded. They rolled and rolled and rolled for such a long time she wet her pants. She might also have been unconscious, lost any track of time and place, unable to say if she had been on the road for hours or days.

They occasionally stopped, but never for long. Finally, they arrived at their destination. Near the sea, by the sound and smell. She was taken out of the van. One man told her off for having wetted her pants, in very rudimentary English.

Two or three men discussed in what might have been Arabic. Then she was walked to a house, or a cabin. The English speaker told her she would be shot if she tried to remove the blindfold, but that he would take her handcuffs off to allow her to undress, wash and put on fresh clothes. She argued she wouldn’t, not in the presence of men. He threatened to shoot her right away. 

Scared deadly, she complied, and was very glad no one touched her. The English speaker called her good girl quick learner and gave her some bread, and a bottle of water to drink from. She was thirsty and drank, despite the toilet problem. Then they waited, and it was cold, must have been night. Another van came, and another, and men were talking, but not in English.

When it had become very cold, she heard a a boat arrive and there was a commotion, with lots of shouting in barely decipherable English. Still blindfolded, she was made to stand up and hold hands with what later turned out to be two other ladies, one on each side. It took a while until everything was sorted. They were just standing there holding hands, not daring to speak.

Then they were made to walk. They were still on the shore, but very close to the water, with the waves right next to them. Scary, she was afraid to fall into the sea. Up front there was shouting in English, the queue only advanced stop-and-go. She found out why, when it was her turn to board the boat. Still holding hands on both sides, she was grabbed and lifted and put down on deck.

Once the whole queue was on deck, they were told to sit down on the floor. They of course complied, and she feared to die at sea. But it wasn’t that kind of boat.

When they had left the shore, a man ordered them to take off the blindfolds, in passable English. There were twenty four of them on board, and the man who had given the order, and a captain. It was a big boat, like for groups of holiday makers, with cabins, sanitary, everything. They were allowed to move freely on board, provided they didn’t go near the captain or the other man. There were granola bars and water, no one was going hungry or thirsty.

They sailed for six days. After the second day, they could sometimes see a shore in the distance on their right. Especially at night, when there were beacons. In the sixth night, they reached a concrete jetty built far out into the sea. On the shore, everything was dark, no town, not even one house in the vicinity. They had had to assemble on deck in advance and were made to disbark in a hurry. As soon as the last lady was off the boat, it steamed off, full speed.

Not knowing what to do, they walked to the end of the jetty, hoping to find something or someone. They found a big concrete surface, like a parking lot, but there wasn’t anyone waiting for them. In the darkness, with little moonlight, they didn’t dare walk further and stood there, discussing what to do, one group in English, one in French, one in Arabic.

Suddenly, headlines came towards them. They turned out to belong to a container truck. It stopped right next to them and the passenger alighted. He carried a gun, and barked at them, in English, to hurry into the container. It was battered, with Chinese signs for logo. But when the gunman opened it, the inside was clean and there were like bunk beds. They had to climb in, one lady per slot, were told to shut up tight, and that they would be safe.

There was no light inside the container and they were at first scared they would lack oxygen, but there must have been holes somewhere, air supply turned out to be no problem. They rolled and rolled and rolled until a first stop, somewhere in the woods, where the first six ladies were told to get off. Then they rolled again, and four more at the next stop. And so on, until there were only four of them left.

At the last stop, once again on a small bay on a deserted road, the three other remaining ladies where left standing there, in the middle of nowhere, while Uzo was told to come sit up front, between the driver and the gunman.

At first she was scared they might have bad intentions, but they gave her coffee and cookies and explained they had another two hours to roll, to deliver her to the middle of yet another nowhere. They both spoke good English and were in a talkative mood, perhaps because of drugs.

They bragged, about how big mighty bandits they were, despite their youth. And how they would build big houses back home in Passau, from the proceeds. They also badmouthed the Libyans at the other end of the route, in Tobruk. Especially a fellow going by the name of El Jameer.

When they stopped at a petrol station, she asked for permission to go to the bathroom. They let her go, because the station was out-of-town, there was nowhere for her to run.

They didn’t expect her to ask a lady she met in the bathroom to give her a ride. She did and rolled off before her captors even noticed she was missing. Luckily, the lady spoke fluent English and was well aware of the plight of the trafficked. She provided Uzo with the address of a shelter for battered women and dropped her off in walking distance. 

Staring at her small TV without listening to the newsman, Uzo once again feels the sting of shame. She’s a liar. A notorious one. She has been rehearsing and telling this tale so often that part of her believes she has been there and survived it.

When she was introduced to the plot, back in Lagos, she of course considered backing out. Riding the wave of the plight of fellow girls and women, towards an even more comfortable future than her not so bad present, what could be more despicable? Her parents didn’t raise her to go fishy, forge and fake, they were principled people.

“Those same principled people paid a fortune to get you going”, Ruzo the Resourceful argued, in Uzo’s head. “They know that what they’re paying for doesn’t qualify as straight and neat. As long as no one gets hurt, so what? This mister El Jameer, if ever Interpol catches him, he’s bad for real, committing atrocious crimes. Not against you, OK. But guess how his real victims feel, about this particular detail? You know how you would feel. You’d want the bastard behind bars.”

Uzo is aware of all these sound arguments. She did what her parents had decided she should do. Unfortunately, this doesn’t help one bit, against the sting of shame.

And the Felinity challenge, it feels like the punishment for her sins. Uzo spent months telling lies, pretending she had been through an ordeal she had instead developed, scripted and rehearsed with an acting coach. Doesn’t get much bigger, on the deception side. 

Uzo isn’t into magical thinking or religion. She doesn’t need a guru or God to tell her that lies are bad. Basic common sense makes her aware that others hate being lied to as much as she does.

Chapters are for sissies

Having declared “Guilty until proven”, my dime novel number five, sufficiently rewritten and done, I retrospectively wonder about the structure.

One more LinkedIn forum discussion got me started. Lots of real, proper, professional writers are exchanging extremely well founded views on chapter lengths. One is supposed to consider an improbable number of variables  defining the optimum: Genre traditions, attention span of the target audience, stylistic requirements, hardcopy publishing constraints,…

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. An me never not even noticing the stuff I read comes in chapters. With hindsight, I’m one of the readers who tend to finish a chapter. As I often read at night, I do indeed lose focus if the author belongs to the long chapter crowd and often need to reread a couple of pages on the following night, but this never bothered me. If I like it, I cope. If I don’t, shorter chapters won’t help.

Seems this is a very amateur view. And not doing proper chapters in my dime novels is an embarrassment. But I like announcing a switch of locations by using an explicit title. The resulting structure displays some of the properties of proper chapters, but they vary in length: At the start of the novel, they can add up to dozens of pages, well beyond maximum professional length, because I need to introduce the cast and its stage. Whereas in the endgame, there’s a far faster switch, and my not-really chapters shrink to a few pages.

I’m hopeless, as a writer. Or can this lack of consistency be considered style? That feels nice. Chapters are for sissies.

Why is it fun to write?

Seriously asking here, because:

  • There’s no money in fiction writing. For most of us. And we’re perfectly aware of this fact.
  • There’s some kind of work involved, judging by how the head tends to run hot in a flow.
  • Writing is all over our schedule, crowding out activities considered relevant by less weird people.
  • Our default answers to non-writing action prompts stretches the patience of our next of kin: “Still busy here, darling. Nearly there, honey. As good as done, sweetie. Just a couple more minutes, love. Not just now, as in right now, OK?”

So why the hell do we keep doing this?

Not claiming an actual Eureka moment here. But I’ll ask the kind folks on LinkedIn and in the Fediverse  if I might be up to something, with a thought that crossed my mind today.

It all happened while working on a dialogue for the next episode of my 1KYears series. The scene involves obnoxious client C, as experienced by phone bank operator O.

Anyone familiar with The Guardian series “What I’m really thinking” will recognise the approach. 

  • Client C behaves a real challenge, stretching the limits of polite interaction. A threatening bully with a foul mouth. His part is relayed as it happens.
  • Operator O, pretty new in his role, anxious to build up credentials as a competent service provider, struggles to cope. Besides learning what he actually gets to say, which isn’t that much, the reader is provided with a glimpse into his mind.

Writing, reading and rewriting this dialogue is fun. Nearly making myself LOL when I do it. Why?

Here’s my best guess at an answer: Deep down, one part of me longs to be as rude as client C. That same part would also enjoy telling all those rude people I can’t avoid meeting, over a lifetime, how much of a nuisance they are. Preferably in their own, plain rude terms.

Most people will describe me as a polite person. Being subjected to yearly 360 degree feedback as part of my very international day job, I can even pretend not to brag when I state as much. But some part of me, deep down, might long to shout a couple of truths at a couple of people who are zero fun to interact with. This part of me envies the rude people, for getting it all off their chests, while also wanting to punish them, for not adhering to conventions.

Too much psychology? Up to something? Nonsense, because <please insert better explanation here>?

I’ll ask the kind folks on LinkedIn and in the Fediverse for their explanations. Or I might do a Twitter poll.

Or rather not? Are there any other hidden parts of my personality I might be revealing through my writing? Clearly some more thinking needed here…

Meet the nice guys: Exilian

Tradition demands to start the New Year withs some fancy vows. “Resume going to the gym”. Or  “replace the kitchen faucet” .  That kind of thing. Familiar with the exercise? Aware of the futility? Thought you would be. Probably a shared trait, among sapients, across solar systems.

Three weekly runs at the gym are fun. They do happen. With or without vows. Whereas that faucet… It does look bad. Duly noted. Ever since we moved in. A couple of years back. But it just looks bad. No leaking. It can be considered ecologically sustainable. Why replace it, now?

Instead of participating in the vow exercise I have decided to start the year by breaking with a tradition.

This site was created to keep my fiction writing well apart from my day job. I make a surprising amount of money generating non-fiction. Theres is also an abundance of calls and meetings involved. And some walking around an office building. To fetch drinks and cookies, to attend meetings, or to combine both activities. And the occasional bout of thinking. But my output basically consists of non-fiction.

The last thing I need, in my spare time, is duplicating my day job. Especially without getting paid for it. Non non-fiction writing.

So far, so rationale, so implemented. Since 2014. No non-fiction pieces for other platforms.

But some guys are so nice you can’t resist: Pleased to introduce you to Exilian, the project that made me break my vow. By providing a little Lagos digression. Even got myself an account…

Blockchained

That was a stupid idea. No. Wrong. His most stupid idea ever. By far. If only he could recant. Or at least kick his own posterior, to keep his mind off those three bullet points. Instead of getting ready to comply. What the hell got into him, back in 2018?

Jackson vaguely recalls a lot of laughter. A solid dose of ethanolic beverages, procured by a friendly twenty-something. Combined with some freshly legalized recreational marijuana, from the same source. Virtual Reality was still in its infancy, you needed substance intake to get high.

His eighteenth birthday. Celebrated in uncle Edgar’s cellar. The weird nerd uncle. His place a safe haven in a forbiddingly middle class neighborhood. Full of servers. High speed everything, too. And uncle Edgar didn’t mind a teen downloading anything. Not pretty much anything. Full anything. Jackson used to love uncle Edgar. The bloody bastard. May he Rest In Peace.

Back in 2018, Uncle Edgar was in process of striking it big. Had just founded Etertract.

Yes, the Etertract. Jackson is nephew to a billionaire. Stupid as straw, fat as blob, utterly miserable right now, but a celeb in the family. Such a bane.

Etertract, as in “eternal” and “contract”. Never a natural at branding, uncle Edgar.

All his earlier ventures had flopped. The debt sent him right back into the industry jobs he was so desperate to leave behind. His wife, not to be called aunt Bridget because that suggested her true age, begged uncle Edgar to stay with the bank. His was doing well, developing some electronic cash transfer validation tool. But he had to quit and found Etertract.

As if the world had been waiting for one more blockchain startup. Everybody who was anybody was doing blockchain moneys. And everybody else was betting real money on it. Them. Or whatever. It didn’t last and any details are long forgotten by now.

Uncle Edgar wasn’t into money. Kept muttering about banks always having the last laugh. Bit of an anti-capitalist, uncle Edgar. Recurring insolvency does that, to a certain kind of nerd. Having come close to a conviction for fraud, for one of his more creative venture capital access plots that involved a virtual Nigerian prince with an equally virtual oil well, uncle Edgar had a better idea.

His home state was going bust. Too many prisons holding far too many felons. Especially the old inmates were as expensive to keep locked up as age had rendered them harmless. Time for a high tech alternative. A virtual prison. Use the blockchain technology to identify the felons, define their parole conditions and track compliance.

Jackson tries to recall what the ambiance was like, back in the age of terrorismania.

People were brave enough to drive cars, on public roads swarming with human drivers. Casual heroism, with often deadly consequences. A majority of those same brave people were terrified to get bombed or raped. None of this would happen to most of them, according to statistics. But they didn’t trust numbers. Very suspicious, of statistics. And of the vaguely defined portion of the population called aliens. A majority of the brave people wanted a wall, to keep out aliens. And perhaps also statistics. Or statisticians. Jackson struggles to recall, thirty two years later.

Which reminds him, of his most stupid idea ever. What being young did to him.

Etertract looked like the usual flop. The virtual prison concept didn’t fly. But SilverLining, a private security company uncle Edgar had contacted to learn about jails, came up with a twist that proved a winner. Change of scale. Etertract would deliver the wall. A virtual wall.

The brave people would never have trusted any government agency with too many data. But distributed, publicly accessible ledgers tracking everyone’s residency and work permit status, as well as eventual criminal records, were an obviously safe solution.

The new Etertract immediately trended on social media, under the hashtag #OurPower. People registered in droves. The trend quickly went offline, too. Jackson recalls the neighborhood recruitement drive. Some old lady, weird dress and bad hair, would come knocking: “Sorry, not finding you on Etertract yet. Would you please hurry to sign up? No offense intended. Just want to  make sure the neighborhood isn’t infested with pedophiles. For the kids, to keep them safe, you know?” At the mall, there was a stand. It soon became a point of pride, to display your Etertract identifier. To tell everyone how legal and law abiding you were.

Many resident aliens joined the rush. Being no less law abiding, except for that missing tick in the greendcard section, they didn’t fail to grasp the potential. Officialdom might not see their worth, but quite a lot of the people had better, first hand understanding.

A farm hand can use Etertract to promise only to stay for the harvesting season, delivering an agreed quota that will of course also be monitored. A personal assistant can link her stay to the lifespan of the granny she’s caring for. As long as this granny, or more often her next of kin, provide weekly confirmation of quality care, it’s more than obvious the carer can’t be deported. Whereas the former marijuana trafficker, his services no longer needed thanks to legalization, won’t find no counterpart to vouch for his utility.

A beautiful virtual wall. And cheap, too.

Uncle Edgar resisted the concept, at first. Mumbled about libertarian pride and dignity. Until the roof photovoltaics needed replacing. And his wife a new car. And he himself a birthday present for his favorite nephew Jackson. Which is a bit of an irony really. Or would that be sarcasm?

On the night of Jackson’s birthday party, Etertract was in the very early roll-out stage. None of his equally juvenile guests had heard of it yet, and he enjoyed showing off. Bragged how his uncle Edgar was in process of changing the world. Jackson knew this venture would flop. Like all the others. Why should this one be any different? But he didn’t mention that detail.

When Sophia taunted him to log in and do a demo, he didn’t think twice.

Hard to define who deserves the blame for his misfortune. The ethanolic beverages? The marijuana? The twenty something who had procured both? Uncle Edgar? His maths teacher, for failing to make him understand how past form doesn’t tell you about future form? Sophia’s cheerleader looks? His own stupidity?

Probably the latter. Most probably. Jackson would really love to kick his ass.

It could still have ended well. He could have come up with something harmless. But foolish young him was so damn sure not to want to live longer than forty years, at most. And that uncle Edgar’s venture was anyway bound to flop. Zero risk. As close to zero as it gets. Ha ha.

He had to write into his ledger that come age fifty he would:

  1. Walk around the block naked. A bit undignified. He’s also going to freeze his butt off, on March 8. But on the feasible side, overall. The time of the day wasn’t defined, his one lucky streak. Around three in the morning the streets should be mostly empty. Except for all the friends, neighbors and acquaintances aware of his misfortune and eager to display compassion. By watching.
  2. Eat his sneakers, without ketchup. This is disgusting. And more tricky than the stripwalk. Jackson did some research. If he cut the damn size 13 beasts into tiny, tiny pieces, they should pass his digestive system without causing harm. He also assumes washing them down, with some strongly flavored tea to cover the original taste, will be permissible. Not exactly what you’d be wishing for, as birthday meal. But he’ll get this done, down, somehow.
  3. Loose any weight he might have gained since his eighteenth birthday. Horror. Misery. Doom. Gloom. Disaster. Despair. The end of a life worth living, as far as Jackson is concerned. So formidably stupid. He will have to loose a full sixty pounds.

Jackson has always been prone to gaining weight. Dieted hard, ahead of his eighteenth birthday. To fit into his favorite jeans. To impress Sophia. She proved immune to his charm. Within the following year, he settled for Olivia. No cheerleader, but a good match.

The two of them happily agreed to ignore the mainstream body shape obsession. Until now.

You don’t recant, from an Etertract. It’s just not possible. No access to the fridge, without your identifier. And don’t even dream to buy anything, edible or not, without it. That’s the beauty, of Etertract and #OurPower. It’s all over our life, but not a government and hence not totalitarian.

Etertract will put Jackson on a diet. And perhaps set him up for bariatric surgery, if the weight loss takes too long to materialize. He’s never going to eat nice again. Horror. Misery. Doom. Gloom. Disaster. Despair. Jackson would love to kick his fat ass.

“Darling? Are you down there, darling? Jackson, answer me. Are you in the cellar?”

The last thing Jackson needs right now, on his last day of a life worth living, is company. But fail to answer a call from your wife at your own peril: “Yes sweetheart. Down here. What’s up?”

And here she comes, the full two hundred lovely pounds of her bouncing down the stairs with amazing grace. The wonderful wife he’s going to betray by no longer feeding himself properly.

“Jackson, what are you up to, down here? I’ve been thinking. We really are getting too fat. The kids agree, too. We will go on that diet together. And to make sure I don’t fail you, I just signed an Etertract. Same date as you, same target. Isn’t that wonderful? Us together, going lean?

Horror. Misery. Doom. Gloom. Disaster. Despair.

If only Jackson could go back in time, to an era without Etertract. The simple joys of failing your commitments. The ancients, did they have any idea how good they had it?

Civilup II

An actual monitor. Not even embedded. Fixed to the wall like some antique on display in a museum. Which in a way it is. Minuscule, too. Two square meters, at best.

How is anyone supposed to learn anything, with obsolete equipment?

This is such a farce.

Garnalag is pissed off. They forced her to attend.

Didn’t accept her perfectly legit ReaFo. It was her third Reason For Absence in a row. This kind of series never looks good. But Lafu Xia Ten got away with four consecutives. Discrimination at work. If she was called Lafu Xia, she would have gotten away. But she’s a Garnalag…

First they don’t accept her ReaFo. Next they assign her a location at the other end of the city.

Getting here took her a full forty five minutes. With a state of the art e-skel set to max. And at the end of this marathon sprint, what does she find? A decrepit building. Obsolete technology.

Brooding never got anyone anywhere. Time to cheer up. The young man on the seat to her left looks like companionship in adversity.

Garnalag opts for a conventional starter:

“Makes you wonder where they put all our taxes, doesn’t it? This must be the most antiquated information device still in use on the planet. Just being confronted with this should count as the history lesson. I mean, I don’t expect a 3D-Chamber. But a virtual immersion wall, that should be feasible, shouldn’t it?”

The frown on the young man’s forehead signals irritation. Perhaps even displeasure.

Garnlag stops short. Harder and harder to engage, young people. As if they were inhabiting some slightly detached parallel universe. Easy to see, hard to reach.

“Well said. First they rob us of our nation, then they rob us of the fruits of our labor, and what for? To treat us like simpletons. Civilup or down my ass. There’s perfectly no point, to this whole exercise. ‘Thanks for your attendance, and for no longer starting wars’. Hand back our guns, I say, just hand back our guns, and then let’s give you some proper ‘thanks’…”

A flag-kisser. The fully blown dinosaur warrior version. What wrong has Garnalag done, to be seated next to one of those? He quotes the ritual closing words of Civilup gatherings in an effeminate voice. To highlight whom he considers responsible for his plight.

Garnalag is no fan of the mandatory Civilization Upkeep.

No one is. You don’t like to attend high rise safety drills, driver license confirmation courses or carer supervision. Same for Civilup. Nearly as bad as taxes. Or pedlane speed limits.

You moan, you groan, you’d love to be elsewhere.

But that doesn’t turn you into a bloody flag-kisser. They are… Big ‘Yuck’ factor.

Thinking about flag-kissers is like focusing on the content of a toilet. Before the flushing. You don’t want your eyes wandering that way. Nor your nose. Never mind your soul.

A whole planet of 1.5 billion adults has to attend at least one Civilup module per quarter. A full three mandatory hours of wasted time. Plus the trip. A full four times a year.

A galactic amount of resources is spent on staff, venues and training materials. Sports events are missed and shopping trips rescheduled. Lawns remain unmown and dishes uncooked. More people die in pedlane collisions on their way to Civilup than from heat strokes.

A whole panoply of human miseries, and why? Because a couple of bloody machos use their right to free speech to keep some bad old flames alive.

Garnalag notices how closely the young man to her left watches her reaction to the rant on her right. She stares back, not hiding her turn to be irritated.

Daring insinuate she might sympathize with a flag-kisser is an insult. Why not call her a gerontophile, while he’s at it? Males, forever the clumsy brutes.

Garnlag is well aware the nuisances are not at fault. Not really, personally.

Nurture by erroneous parentals transforms innocent boys into aggressive adult males. Bad upbringing, on top of an unfortunate natural proclivity for high testosterone levels, turns good seeds into weeds. Males are perfectly capable of restraint. Empathy, even. Given the chance, they will improve. In the due course of time. Can’t be relegated to second class citizen status forever.

Garnalag endorses the progressive approach. It’s the right thing to do. Otherwise, you’ll have to watch your back forever. Perfectly fine rationale. Especially when considered from a boardroom perspective, with a maximum one diversity male around. But…

Garnalag is no sexist. She’d never threaten to alert an Enforcebot without a serious reason. Despises colleagues who harass males for fun. She’s definitely no sexist.

Even got close to intervening in favor of a harrassed male, once.

It all happened in Clafang Ran Tlo’s office. Garnalag had joined her for a teleconference. The window cleaner was busy next to them. The clumsy brute splattered some water right onto the desk. Some drops even hit the screen. And Clafang Ran Tlo to lose her countenance. Performed the scissors gesture. Very unambiguously. Twice.

Garnalag got within an inch of intervening. Their remote interlocutor got in first and resolved the situation. With a joke about how one needs to be careful how one snips one’s fingers, in the era of facility staff empowerment. Zero sexism. Very professional.

Wit is so elusive. Garnalag will come up with a perfect retort. Tonight. Over dinner. Or at bedtime.

Now she’s lost for words. Reduced to stare ahead, without any hint of a smile.

Luckily, something’s finally happening in her line of sight. The screen lights up. The familiar voice of the tutoress purrs: “Welcome to Civilization Upkeep Module 2. Dear citizens, thank you for taking the time to contemplate once again…”

This equipment insults the senses. Zero immersive experience.

Civilup II is about malnutrition and lack of access to healthcare. How these blights used to affect some seventy percents of the global population. Before taking into consideration the mental stresses associated with a precarious life.

Fifty years ago, a shocking amount of suffering was considered acceptable. The sights and sounds of so much despair should be heartbreaking.

Not with this equipment. Doesn’t feel real enough.

Takes Garnalag less than half an hour to make up her mind. She will contact Civilup central. An upgrade of the program is required. Urgently. Just the basic basics should do. Virtual immersion walls. And the corresponding reprocessing of the material. You need the victims to speak to the audience in current lingo, if you’re aiming for identification.

This won’t cost a fortune. Sure to work wonders, on the customers.

Amazing, the level of luxury some ancients achieved. The food now on display on the screen looks alluring. Reminds Garnalag she had to skip breakfast to arrive on time.

Not that she would have had ham or cheese.

Garnalag does make a packet, in advertising, but that kind of delicacy is beyond her means.

Bloody animal welfare fanatics. Nowadays, cow milk has to be fairly shared between calf and client, driving dairy product prices sky high. And no pig can be slaughtered before having frolicked around the farm for a happy six years of joyful mating.

This is disgusting. Just when Garnalag is seriously getting into a foodie mood, the course switches back to health issues. Cholera and plague.

Interesting to hear that these medieval curses were still around at the beginning of the century, though. Who’d have thought?

Tananarive really has come a long way. Hard to believe today’s spa destination used to feature slums. This fast motion rush through the evolution of the cityscape leaves you breathless.

“And they lived happily ever after. Sex no-no, drugs no-no, and don’t you even start dreamin of rock’n roll. But they lived happily ever after. Who the fuck do you think you’re kiddin?”

The falsetto voice. That did it. Having spent the rest of the session to figure out what happened, Garnalag reaches the conclusion the voice must have been the trigger.

She doesn’t even know if it was her own discreet alert that summoned the Enforcebot.

They all heard the flag kisser. In her row, up front and behind. At least a dozen people were inconvenienced by his remarks. Some of them will have joined her in doing the needful.

It’s never pretty, to watch a man raise his arms in anxious capitulation. Looks so meek. The images always go viral. Big boy afraid of small toy. Better than LOL rats.

An Enforcebot is anything but a child’s game. A five pound metallic spider, equipped with a domineering temper, sharp claws and a taser designed to bring down a bull, is not to be messed with. Everybody has seen enough footage to know what not to do.

Today’s nuisance was no exception. On hearing the telltale clatter approach, the flag kisser went quiet. Was already in process of standing up when the Enforcebot reached his seat and went: “Sir, would you kindly proceed to the exit, please? For a little civility feedback, please?”

Garnalag held her breath. Would their flag kisser aspire to martyr status?

Sometimes, the wilder kind of mad men pretend compliance, only to kick at their captor once it comes into range. A very, very bad idea. Retribution follows, fast and hard.

Garnalag braced herself for the worst. She shifted her weight as far to the left as possible, ready to dive out of the combat zone if necessary.

Luckily, her nemesis followed his orders without a comment or hint of resistance.

As usual on such occasions, the whole audience focused on the lesson still unfolding on the screen and through the loud speakers. You don’t know if and how an Enforcebot will react, in case it noticed a lack of diligence. Better safe than sorry.

Garnalag listened to the pair of them exiting through the back door. Next, she spent the rest of the lesson arguing with herself.

You can’t let this kind of guy get away with aggression. There’s tons of science to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that antisocial behavior gets worse if left unchallenged.

It’s also true he stayed verbal.

And there are reports, unconfirmed reports, of Enforcebots using violence, unprovoked and unnecessary violence, in the course of civility feedback. Some hotheads even talk of torture.

But men, especially large ones, are a walking threat. To women. And civilization.

On balance, you need to act. Garnalag was right to press that button.

“Thanks for your attendance, and for no longer starting wars.” The tutoress is done. To the sound of the hymn for the three Ps, the references list unfolds on the screen.

Garnalag likes the melody. It’s a fast paced blend of Malagasy, Tamil and Celtic traditions. She doesn’t care much about the lyrics. No issue with Pragmatism, Polyethics and Peace as such. Of course not. But as a marketing professional, she can’t help identify waffle when it hits her.

Tradition demands to stay seated until the screen reverts to dark. Small talk over the credits, fine. But you don’t rush out. This is about civilized behavior. And important. You display respect.

Witnessing an Enforcebot intervention has a chilling effect on any congregation. Reminds you of the price to pay for a less violent society. Raises doubts and questions better left unsaid.

Today’s crowd is no exception. No small talk. Most people remain unusually still and quiet.

“Apologies, for my dad making a mess. He doesn’t mean bad. Would never actually harm no lady. Mom kicked him out a couple of years ago. Because of his big mouth, especially under the influence. This sent him crossfading worse, which got him sacked. And now… He’s not well, and tends to end up in trouble. Apologies…”

Garnalag is lost for comments. But at least the session is now closed. Time to hurry back to her life. Bloody lessons. She’ll have to think of a good ReaFo.

Writer’s amnesia

Today, it happened again. This is scary. First time I was subjected to the phenomenon, my inner hypochondriac suspected early stage Alzheimer. He insisted on doing the usual tests. Results just fine.

So what the hell is this? The admin alerts me to a new comment on Inside the box. Vaguely remember the plot. Wonder how long ago I wrote this. Not recently enough for the post to feature on the front page. Select “Words to Go” tag to get all the shorts.

First reaction: Cool, this does add up. As the admin suggested at the onset of the project: “You worry too much, Troim. You won’t even notice one short per month. That’s totally unlike novels. No risk to get obsessed with those characters.”

True enough. Scrolling down the list, I don’t even recognise the names. I mean, I’m lousy at recollecting names in real life. Used to this handicap leading to countless episodes of embarrassment. I’m name deaf. Recall the person, or some shared occasion. Draw a blank for the names. First and last. Bad.

Not recognising the names of characters I invented earlier this year, and struggling to recollect the plot, that’s worse.

Feels like disrespect. The major characters of my novels, and of the 1KYears series, they’re closer to me than some day job colleagues. (More interesting, too. But that’s beside the point here. And not a nice thing to say, about colleagues). The poor heroes of the shorts, they get forgotten faster than the tram driver spotted through the front window.

Wonder if this means anything, regarding depth and quality? One more question I probably won’t dare raising on LinkedIn.

Low Score

Low Score

Three hundred and eighty five. 385. Thirty five soccer teams. A train full of adults. How much time would it have taken them? Assuming an average of five hours, it adds up to 1790 hours. Eighty person days. Wasted. Plus her own contribution. Another 10 hours.

Synat shakes her head in disgust. She’s so sick of this quest. The needle in the haystack. The pearl among the pebbles. Something, anything to work on. She should have taken a nap, instead of sifting through this rubbish. Result would have been exactly the same.

In her brighter moments, Synat remembers how this used to be a fun job. Relatively speaking. Pleasure and wage slaving, that’s like spicy bland. But it wasn’t all bad.

„You’re a skilled software developer“ the head hunter said. „With a specialization in targeting. And you like books. The entertaining kind. The ones people buy without second thoughts. Just for the fun of reading them. In this job, you can make the most of all your strengths.“ Synat recalls both the suit, the smell of his after shave and the pitch as if their encounter had happened yesterday.

The proposal sounded attractive. Vague, but interesting. She agreed to engage with a meeting room full of Mmakuko Inc managers. Thought some sense into their very high level project outline. Got herself hired. Dove right in and did her targeting thing.

She was provided with three socioeconomic criteria. Audience must haves, from a marketing point of view. Sufficient numbers. Acceptable purchasing power. Dearth of products.

Combining these requirements with publicly available data on reading habits, Synat compiled a little jewel of a prototype of an analytical tool. The good old days.

They didn’t last long. At first, the downhill motion was gentle. Refining the beta version of her creation against both past beststellers and middle-of-the-road fare involved some tedium. But it was the rewarding kind of drudge. Dig, dig, dig. See the correlations. Get a better idea.

Synat identified three promising target cohorts:

  • Centrist to mildly progressive men with no or little tertiary education, ages twenty to fifty. The nicer kind of football fans, in her private words.
  • Outwardly conformist, closetly anarcho-sarcastic women caring for kids. The momma bitches, to a career-first-no-time-for-family female person.
  • Terminally old seniors of the non-nostalgic persuasion, often house- or even bed-bound due to physical ailments. Proto-zombies, for any younger-than-thirty mind.

To Synat’s surprise and the joyful benefit anticipation of her superiors, her supposedly distinct groups turned out to share a number of preferences:

  • They like their entertainment devoid of graphic violence and explicit adult content. Don’t want to blush in case their spouse, kids or nurse has a look.
  • They sometimes need their hands and eyes for other tasks, or have trouble using limbs or senses in the first place. Content has to be suitable for audio delivery.
  • They cherish protagonists who look, sound and feel familiar. A cast of mostly straight black plain talkers. No racism, homophobia or cultural sense of mission involved. Just familiarity.
  • They appreciate action over contemplation. Plots should proceed at a robust pace. „It needs to keep you awake“, in the words of a proto-zombie interviewed for in-depth understanding.
  • They insist on happy to bittersweet outcomes. Too grown-up for fairy tales and too burdened with challenges in real life, they prefer the middle path.

Synat’s next steps were obvious. Transform this very general understanding of the aggregate target audience into patterns a machine can learn to identify. Build a first, crude benchmarking tool. Test and tweak. Test again and tweak again. Again and again and again.

With hindsight, they weren’t that bad, the later stages of the old days. Felt stressful, at the time. But only for her lack of an idea of real ordeals. If only a whole working life could consist of the stresses of first version development.

Synat recalls how she used to complain. Nearly drove out Lyreetsa, her companion, with her moaning. No sane being should have to monitor the processing of decades of straight couple, good bloke and best friend dialogues. Nor should she be forced to analyze the pleasure patterns involved in football fandom, housekeeping or shopping.

Synat suffered a nervous breakdown. She was diagnosed with acute mainstream pursuit empathy fatigue. Not good. But the money Mmakukos finally found a budget for the two assistants she had been requesting for a year. She pulled herself back together.

One horrible day, Mmakuko management declared her done. They called for files and triggered a deluge. Tens of thousands of potential books by nearly as many authors flooded the servers.

The wall of content. Synat feared for her poor software. Too big a task for such a fragile creation, fresh from the drawing board. To her shock, it performed impeccably. While she was still trying to slow things down, warning about the limitations of an algorithmic approach and arguing for wet vetting, their first local bestseller turned global triumph.

Translations into twenty-six languages followed. Hype all over. The news called Mmakuko the new Wr@z. Lagos was declared THE fiction hotspot. She was called a prodigy. And the dark witch. On social networks, she got stalked by precious few fans and innumerable trolls.

Writers make vicious foes. Good at finding the words that hurt. As if it was her fault, that a lot of newcomers scored high. Which they typically didn’t even do. Not in their initial submissions. They were just more willing than proven authors to read the feedback, adjust and try again.

That’s how it works, with Synat’s Bestsellerator. You submit, it checks. Depending on traffic and submission size, you wait for a couple of minutes. Half an hour at most, at peak times. You find a score in your inbox. Accompanied by suggestions for improvement. You rewrite and resubmit.

Obigele Akwukwo, the author of Mmakuko’s longest running series „Stuck and no go“, readily confesses she had to submit the first episode eleven times, to barely make it into the 90+% range that was considered sufficient in her days. Managed 89% in her seventh round, only to drop back. „Swallow your pride and keep trying“ was her standard advice for novices.

Ninety percent. So little. Synat marvels at the progress she has been privileged to witness. Nowadays, a mere ninety percent is nothing. 99%, that’s the threshold triggering the alarm.

385 alarms, and not one with a clear potential for the 99.9% needed for a conventional publishing slot. Two might have a chance to get e-published, as niche products. Plus three more, if they adapt the cast. Everything else is hopeless. And her software is obsolete.

No more need for a Bestsellerator. If you want good, solid entertainment meeting current audience expectations, only a novelbot will deliver. More reliably. More precisely targeted. Synat provided the foundations, and the world built on them. From assessment to outright creation, a step that was considered impossible in her heydays, proved to be no big deal. The next generation just did it. Her software is obsolete. She’s obsolete.

One more task best performed by artificial intelligence. And once again, humanity will split along the usual lines. Audiences will lap up novelbot output, glad to get exactly what they want. At a competitive price. Obsolete professionals will shriek. And politicians waffle.

„Synat? What are you doing, Synat? Don’t tell me you’re at it, again? Running the Bestsellerator, are you? Synat. We talked about this, Synat. You no longer need to do this. No more home office, Synat, remember? It is all fine without you performing, no problem…“

Lyreetsa. Even the tone of her voice triggers a rage these days. Pretending compassion. Only achieving to sound haughty. Talking like to a stupid deaf person. Loudly. With extra pauses between each and every single word.

Lyreetsa is going to say the new d-word next. Always says d-words. That’s insulting. Completely insane herself. Still insists on writing poetry. Despite all the lyricbots out there, doing it so much better. For all tastes. Lyreetsa is totally mad. And dares calling her d-words.

„Synat, come on now, be a good girl. We will now quit this program, here we go. All is fine and backed-up twice, the way you like it, see? And now we will switch off…“

No way. There is only so much interference Synat is willing to tolerate, for the sake of peace and non-violence. Lyreetsa will not touch her machine. That’s like rape, that is. Hitting out at the unwarranted hand trying to do the forbidden, Synat beats off the assailant.

„Ouch, you bloody bitch. What the hell was that for, Synat? I’m just trying to switch off that damn computer, and you hit me?! Do I need to remind you, again, what Dr. Morales said, about hitting? No hitting. Never no hitting, Synat. If you keep hitting, we will have to move you…“

She goes on and on. Synat won’t deign comment. Pretends not to have heard the d-word. It has by now been mentioned, as she knew it would. But she won’t react. As long as her machine is safe, she endures. It his her fundamental right to assess Bestsellerator submissions. Even if there are so few of them, nowadays, and of such poor quality. A right is a right.

Lyreetsa is still waffling. Poets = waffle. Takes her a couple of minutes to understand they are done talking. Finally beats a muttering retreat and leaves the room. So far, so good.

Once the door is closed, Synat quickly activates her spyware. She might be getting a tad oldish. Her thinking might be slightly less fast and flexible than it used to be. But she’s still clever enough to stay one move ahead of a mere poet. If Lyreetsa dares call an ambulance to have her evacuated to an asylum, she will buy herself time by setting off fire alarms and dash off. Still a couple of tricks up her sleaves, even in pajamas. All hell will break lose if they dare.

But they don’t. Lyreetsa only calls nurse Ramoles: „Ramo“ She always calls her that. Stupid, disrespectful nickname. „Ramo, she’s driving me mad. No, you don’t understand, just let me explain. She has been at it, again. For twelve hours.“ Here we go again. A lie. Can’t even read a watch or count, the traitor. Ten hours. Ten. Not twelve.

„She has been sitting there all day, Ramo. Running that stupid software. She could do anything. Look out the window, watch TV, listen to an audio book. She could knit. They say knitting is very good, against the restlessness associated with dementia.“ And the new d-word again. Synat seriously hates d-words. The old d-word, depression, was bad enough. The new one is worse.

„Pretty quiet activity, knitting. Peaceful. Artisanal. Crafty.“ Poets. Trust them to waffle. The little information there is might be wrong, but never lost for words. Poets…

„She could knit. Bought her wool and needles. Trust her not even to try. Insists on running that stupid software instead. No, Ramo, don’t interrupt me. I know you’re going to say I should let her proceed. As long as she doesn’t burn down the house,… I know, I know, I know. But this is a computer she’s using. And it’s fully connected. You can’t be sure, nor can doctor Morales, that she’s bonkers enough no longer to be able to wreak havoc…“

Twenty years ago, Synat would have held her breath in suspense. Nowadays, she lacks spare respiratory capacity, but excitement she still does feel. Did her ruse work?

„No, Ramo, she’s not that gone. She only pretended no to be aware of the date, or recall her age. That was her at her deceitful best, a trick to be allowed to keep her infrastructure. Don’t you dare call me paranoid, Ramo. I am not, and this is insulting. No, I don’t. „Paranoid behavior“ is exactly the same as „paranoid“. I won’t argue with you, of all people, about words…“

Synat relaxes back into the comfort of her multipurpose day chair. She won. Cool.

A couple of minutes later, she no longer remembers what the fuzz was about. Only recalls a very good feeling. Well worth the effort. Whatever that effort was. It did involve the Bestsellerator. Doing her job. That was vitally important. She has to keep it up. As long as she can.

Ephemerals

Ephemerals

“But there aren’t any. Not one ephemeral. No ephemerals, no non-sapient mobiles, no nothing. Not even non-sapient immobiles. This is just a stupid, empty rock. Homework done, empty rock result duly recorded. I’ll be playing multiverses now, OK?”

Norendrum performs the dark energy entity equivalent of holding its breath. If instructor Schwarzberlem doesn’t react, it won’t ask for permission again.

Homework is such a futile invention. Absolute waste of time. There is perfectly no need to progress towards what the instructors call a fully structured state. Norendrum doesn’t share such antiquated notions. It’s a perfectly viable, alternatively structured entity. And longs to go beat Blackantaman now. The opponent is currently leading twelve multiverses to nine. But four of these are so unstable they’re sure to autoterminate on the first shock. Time to win!

“Don’t be stupid, Norendrum. And don’t you even dream of wasting time on that silly game before I have reviewed and accepted your homework. Stop wobbling like that, not prepared to discuss this. You will now focus on this wonderful specimen of alternate matter and record ephemeral activity. Thirty storage units of data, and no debate. Just do it.”

Damn. Instructor Schwarzberlem is such an authoritarian. A real dictator. There is nothing on that bloody rock. Norendrum did check. Twice. One and a half times, at least. Trying for a third time once and for all proves it right. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

“There aren’t any. Really now, instructor. Just you check for yourself. Nothing…”

Norendrum would have whined on. It gets cut short by the instructor conjuring up a hole. A pretty big one, spinning menacingly. Swallows two solar systems right away. A dozen more get badly shaken. Instructor Schwarzberlem must be seriously pissed off. Time to climb down.

“OK, OK, got the message. No need to freak out, OK? No, I don’t want to spend a time unit in detention. Yes, I will look at the stupid rock again. If you insist there are ephemerals, I will find ephemerals. Thirty storage units, as you wish. Satisfied now?”

The hole vanishing suggests Norendrum’s surrender was accepted. So far, so good. But how do you find ephemerals on a perfectly empty rock?

Examining the tiny ball once again, much more closely, Norendrum does notice the rocky surface comes in variations. Solid rock. Ground rock. Liquid rock. The solid rock comes in variants. Some of them displaying surprisingly regular patterns.

This was supposed to be important. A sign of something. You had to ask yourself something, on encountering patterns. It was a word with an A. Artistic? No, longer. Arithmetical? No, too easy. The concept in question was far more complicated.

Artificial. Artifacts. Regular patterns in a rocky surface signal it was treated, by something forcing it into a specific shape. Artifacts signal a cavi…, a cera…, a civilization.

Ephemerals, if left to their own devices, form a civilization that litters the surface of a planet with artifacts. Finding artifacts does not necessarily imply the ephemerals are still around. They come and go. They are mostly gone, really. Both individually and at the aggregate level. But if you find artifacts there is a chance of them crawling around. Worth a look.

Norendrum tries to recall the instruction. Hopeless. It didn’t pay attention. There were no resources available, to focus on irrelevant information perfectly retrievable from a library.

Of late, Norendrum has started to experience sudden pattern reconfigurations. Like your whole you shifting inside out. And back again. Feels awesome. Awesomely bad. And imaging what it must look like, to others, makes you feel even worse. That’s far more important than stupid rocks supposed to crawl with hard to identify ephemerals.

The library. Norendrum hates the idea. Doing research to find out how to perform the homework, on top of the actual exercise, that’s more waste of more precious time. On the other hand…

Instructor Schwarzberlem is not exactly known for empty threats. More like the opposite, really. And ending up in detention would provide Blackantaman with a chance to fiddle with their ongoing game. Being confined inside a hole cuts you off, from everything.

Norendrum gawps at the recorded instruction. What the quantum state? If this weird crap is true, ephemerals are walking bags of liquid rock. Infinitely small blobs of liquid rock.

This is real hard. This is impossible. Norendrum tangles its perceptive waves so thoroughly it momentarily destructures. That’s not working. Not at all.

But there was something. Not a perception yet. More like a shadow of a hint of one.

Intrigued, Norendum tries again. Bloody quantum leaps. Lots. Lots and lots, and lots more. The rock is swarming with ephemerals, in some places. Most of them are so impossibly minuscule the little rock must feel like overwhelmingly huge to them.

There is a bigger one. That size is easier to study. And the shape is more familiar, too. One has one’s expectations, when it comes to sapients. What they should look like. A proper sapient needs an identifiable wave structure. Norendrum doesn’t mind aliens, but there are limits. Even to weirdness.

Fascinating, to imagine how ephemerals just like this one achieved to create all the civilization artifacts. Must be hard, to conjure limbs out of liquid rock.  This is still stupid homework, but Norendrum feels some of the pride of the true explorer.

Twenty two storage units on the ephemeral it now calls BigWave, that should be sufficient. Less than thirty, but close enough. The other two instructees will have failed to perceive the ephemerals. Norendrum should be on the safe side.

“Schwarzberlem? I’m done, Schwarzberlem. Found the ephemerals, recorded a bucketful of how they behave, all done. I’ll be playing multiverses now, OK?”

The instructor must be busy. No answer. Still none. This waiting sucks. Still no reply. Ask again? No. No need. We’ve got universal perception. Still no response. That’s a permission. No answer is as good as an explicit permission, for all practical purposes.

“Detention? Me? But you can’t, Schwarzberlem, it’s not fair, I was just…”

It takes a resentful Norendrum a while to notice it has already been cut off.

This is all so unfair. First Blackantaman beating it at multiverses. Five to six. It had been leading seven to six, until the very last moment. That last trick, the tackling, that was practically cheating. Even if it doesn’t count as such.

Next Schwarzberlem’s reprimand, for playing without permission. Even though Norendrum did ask. Loud and clear, for all interested parties to hear. If they were interested. Norendrum argued, of course. Pleaded lack of fairness and seemed well on its way to swaying the instructor.

Until the choleric despot looked at the homework.

Such a perfectly suitable piece, and nearly long enough. But judged insufficient. Just because BigWave turns out to be a non-sapient surface structure supposed to be called a “river”.

OK, point taken, minor details do count, in homework. BigWave is not one of the ephemerals after all, had no part in creating the civilization. OK. But it’s made of pretty much exactly the same weird stuff as the ephemerals. That should count.

“That’s it. I won’t have you dare talk back to me like this. You stay right in there and recconsider.”

Those were the last words Norendrum heard, for a couple of time units.

Currently, it’s pondering to rid the universe of ephemerals. Once it gets out, it will do something, about the pests. It was all their fault, after all. Calls for revenge.

Obsession

One more question for the experts on LinkedIn: How bad a sign is it, if you get obsessed with your characters?

This is very much like real life falling in love, only worse.

In real life, past a certain age, you’re familiar with the phenomenon, and know the acute phase won’t last. Either the subject of your desires is within reach, and things will calm down. Or it isn’t, and you’ll face up to this fact, sooner or later.

No such resolution with your characters. As long as they remain active, for the duration of a particular project, they’re here to stay.

And not just the tip of the iceberg the readers will meet.

The writers privilege, or nuisance, is total acquaintance. You’ve got access to the character’s backstory and family history, for the simple reason that you’re the one who came up with it. You have peeked into every nook and cranny. You know them better than they do, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to imagine scenarios where they surprise themselves. In a plausible way.

You check your slides to prepare for a day job meeting, see an arrow and wonder which shade of red colour sensitive character x would have selected. You have a toilet break and stay just that little bit longer because you’re revisiting a pivotal scene involving character x. You ride home on public transport and miss your stop because a fellow passenger stands like character x would.

The longer the project lasts, the worse the obsession gets. And it’s not only character x piling in on you. The whole cast gets ever more prone to showing up outside writing slots.

Such symptoms may suggest a mental health issue.

Nope, wrong guess. With privileged access to professionals this explanation was easy to discard. Especially as the symptoms vanish once the last round of rewriting is completed.

No pathology involved. So far, so good. But what does it mean, for the writer? Is being prone to this kind of obsession, or total plot immersion, a bad sign, signalling lack of distance? Or the contrary?