Friday Free-for-All #73: 10/10, casino, hotel, lonely

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What’s your go to casino game?

First of all, everything in a casino is rigged in the house’s favor. Well, not even rigged. It’s just that the way that the odds work, you’re most likely going to lose unless you happen to walk in and win that $500,000 jackpot with your first dollar in a slot machine and then cash in and walk out.

Otherwise, slot machines aren’t known as “one-armed bandits” for nothing. They’re based on the concept of an intermittent reward. After you’ve put in maybe ten coins and won nothing, then you might get a payout of eight and feel like it’s a big deal, but it’s an illusion.

That’s because your brain immediately thinks, “Hey, I just eight bucks gambling one,” forgetting the other nine that went in before that. So you feel like you’re up instead of down, and keep going.

In theory, casinos do have to pay out slightly more than they take in on the slots, but it doesn’t have to be per hour or per day. Instead, they will tend to tighten up the slots — decrease payouts — during times that the tourists are there, then loosen them up — increase payouts — when it’s going to be only locals.

If you want to even have a chance of winning at the slots in Vegas, you want to go play in downtown Vegas in the middle of a day in the middle of the week, in the afternoon.

The other huge sucker’s game is roulette. Avoid this one entirely. The best you can do is bet black or red, but it’s a 1:1 payout on a not quite 50/50 chance. Did you ever wonder why a Roulette wheel has either one or two green slots, zero and, sometimes, double-zero?

That’s right — so that a red or black bet will be less than a 50/50 chance. It also slightly reduces the 1:36 odds on any individual number. But if you’re betting on single numbers, you might as well just take that money and donate it to charity.

Craps can involve a little bit of strategy, but unless you want to take the time to learn the intricacies of it, it’s probably not worth trying. Likewise, poker is the one game you might actually win at, but there are two reasons. One is that it requires skill on top of chance. The other is that you’re mostly playing against the other players, not the house.

Video poker is different, by the way. The actual odds of any particular hand coming up for you have, naturally, been skewed in the house’s favor and those hands are not random.

So my casino game of choice is blackjack, even though I haven’t been to a casino in years. My reasons are simple. It’s a group game where you can be as social (or anti-social) as you want, the rules are easy to learn, and the dealer is on a somewhat equal playing field. Not entirely, but closer than in any of the other games.

I do have a few rules, though. Any time I go to a casino, I set aside a certain amount that I’m willing to lose. Or, as I think of it, this is what I’m willing to spend playing blackjack. When it’s gone, I’m done, period.

Second is that I stick to the really low-limit tables, $1 or $5, although I have a feeling that one-dollar tables are a thing of the past — that’s how long it’s been since I’ve been to Vegas. Or any casino, although I’ve been close to the ones in Palm Springs and have been tempted.

Other than that, always split Aces, never split tens or face cards, learn how to double down, and keep your winnings and what’s left of what you’ve come to lose separate. With any luck, you can keep it going for a while. With a lot of luck, you actually can walk out with more than you brought in.

What three activities would you rate 10/10 would do again?

There’s really not a lot of detail to any of these, so here they are in no particular order:

    1. Canoeing on a mountain lake. Preferably in the front of the canoe. There’s just something remarkably calming about gliding across the glass-like surface of the water and yet feeling the power and control via the paddle while going relatively quickly.
    2. Sex. Even when it’s bad, it’s… okay, but when it’s average it’s amazing. Get up into the realm of good sex and beyond, and you’re already way past a 10.
    3. Visit New York City, only with time to actually enjoy it. I am kind of odd in that I love both dense urban environments and unspoiled natural landscapes, but New York just has an energy that’s unmatchable. (I would have said San Francisco, but apparently she’s not what she used to be.)

If you built a themed hotel, what would the theme be and what would the rooms look like?

I would definitely create the Fandom Hotel & Resort — and yes, that’s a play on Wyndham. Each floor, or group of floors, would be themed to a particular fandom and designed accordingly, with the rooms and suites also being themed.

It could cover fandoms like Star Wars, Star Trek, Stranger Things, Game of Thrones, Firefly, X-Men, Marvel, DC, Pixar, Harry Potter, Disney, Pixar, the Askewniverse, and on and on and on.

Keep in mind that this is a fantasy hotel, because most of the franchises on the list would never license out to a third party or, if they did, the rights would cost so much that rooms would have to cost a million dollars a night to break even.

If this were going to be a real thing, then it would be a Choose Your Own Adventure sort of place, although not based on the books — and the name might have to change. The idea is that the floors and rooms would reflect certain genres, and might even incorporate 3D projection windows to replace the outside views with images appropriate to the genre.

For example, in a SciFi room, you might see a starfield and planet(s) out the window, while adventure might show you towering mountains with a roaring waterfall and wide river from a ridiculously high POV.

The trick would be coordinating the serving staff to match the theme of the floor so that you wouldn’t have a generic bellhop bringing you room service — then again, for a SciFi floor, a dumbwaiter delivery system that would simulate a working replicator might do it, although there’d still need to be some way to tip whoever got the meal together and loaded it in.

As an added touch, there could be nightly shows, separated by theme floor and guests, using motion simulators. The main shopping, retail, and restaurant area might combine all of the themes vaguely separated into zones.

It would be sort of like a Disneyland you could stay in, and participate as much or as little as you wanted to.

Why are there so many people who are lonely? Why is it so hard for people to make real connections when almost everyone wants to make real connections?

The thing holding people back the most is fear. Fear of rejection is the big one, and so people don’t put themselves out there in the first place. You can’t be rejected if you don’t ask, after all. But if you wait around for someone to ask you, you may just wait forever.

But when you have met someone, the next level of fear is that of exposing your true self and being vulnerable. We put up walls, always worrying, “Will they still like me if I tell them that?”

Some people exaggerate and embellish to fight insecurity and try to impress others. The problem is that this always fails when the embellishments and lies fall apart or inconsistencies and impossibilities begin to pop up.

“Wait — you said you remember being at Elvis’ last concert? But you were, like, two when he died.”

Pro-tip: You have to do a lot of work to remember your lies. You don’t have to do anything to remember the truth.

But we won’t break through the walls to meet other people in the first place, and then we all put up more walls which prevents us from making real connections. We say that we want to make real connections, but that scares us, because then we have no secrets and we’ve exposed our true self.

But those are the only ways to actually make that connection. You have to be willing to strip emotionally naked, or no one will ever know who you are or connect with you.

Sunday Nibble #74: Dune, again

Almost a year ago, I did a Sunday nibble post expressing my excitement over the upcoming film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, which they are wisely doing in two parts so they can properly cover the scope of the book. It was originally going to come out at the end of 2020, but due to the ongoing COVID situation, it was pushed back, now scheduled for October 22, 2021.

They have released another trailer, though, and the more I see, the more it looks like the filmmakers nailed it. Have a look for yourself. You’ll want to see this in full-screen and HD.

If you’re a fan of the Dune books, or even just either of the two prior adaptations in film and TV, then I hope you’re as excited as I am. If you’re not familiar, then grab a copy of Dune now — you can probably find tons of copies at any used bookstore — and start reading. It won’t ruin your experience of the film, but it will introduce you to the Herbert’s world.

Sunday Nibble #72: Keep it varied!

One of the big fails of modern science fiction films comes down to world-building — literally. It’s pretty much this: For whatever reason, most planets wind up with a one-world biome.

It’s a desert planet, or a snow planet, or a forest planet, or a volcano planet, and that’s it.

Now, I can see how our own solar system might have propagated this idea because, well, honestly, other than the Earth and Mars, look at Mercury, Venus, Neptune, and Uranus, and they really do seem to be mostly the same globally.

Mercury is a rock — but if you compare the temperature on the side that always faces the Sun and the side that does not, you’ll find a ridiculous extreme because it has both the hottest and coldest places in our solar system if you don’t count the atmosphere of the Sun itself.

So scratch Mercury off the list, because it has climate extremes as well. And if it had any kind of atmosphere (which it can’t), it would have incredibly violent storms along its terminator, which in this case would be a line circling its poles, with total sunshine on one side and total dark on the other.

Meanwhile… Venus is a hellhole with no variation, so it totally fits the science fiction planet stereotype. Way to go Venus!

Earth… I’ll get back to us in a minute.

Mars… it may look like it’s just a little off-orange dust-ball with easily revealed gray streaks, but that’s not really true. While it doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere to speak of, it does actually have seasons, and the climate, such as it is, in the polar zones and at the equator do vary.

Let’s jump over Jupiter and Saturn and take a look at Neptune and Uranus.

These last two are, in fact, the epitome of mono-biome worlds, as far as we can tell. They are just spinning globes of liquid methane and ammonia at really low temperatures, they lack surface features, and are pretty reminiscent of a planet like Giedi Prime from Dune, which was basically made of fossil fuels.

The only fail in those books was the idea that the planet could actually be habitable by any kind of hominid life-form. Nope. It would have been, at best, the equivalent of a distant oil field, exploited by pipeline or robot rigging crew, with the actual product shipped to a real home world to be exploited.

The real action on varied biomes this far out in our solar system probably comes among the many moons, of which Uranus and Neptune have a lot, and Saturn and Jupiter have many more — but let us get back to the king of planets, and the father of the king, by whom he was eaten.

Look it up, people.

While both places may look like they are just whirling balls of gas as well, one glance at them tells us that no, they are not. And while you have to go really far down in hopes of finding any kind of solid surface, a look at the top of their atmospheres says, “Wow. They have climates.”

And boy, do they.

Jupiter is famous for its storms, the most well-known of which is the Great Red Spot, which is pretty much a hurricane just south of the equator that has spun in roughly the same place for centuries. There are indications that it’s finally breaking up, but others are forming in a storm train that’s familiar to any Earthling who watches news of our own Atlantic hurricanes.

Jupiter’s storms are just bigger, nastier, and they last (figuratively) forever. Meanwhile, the dynamics of the rest of the atmosphere are incredible, with visible bands of clouds and gases violently interacting in a dance of fluid dynamics driven by the incredibly rapid revolution of the planet.

Jupiter’s circumference is roughly eleven times the Earth’s, but one revolution on Jupiter, aka one day, takes only 9 hours and 56 minutes. Meanwhile, one revolution on Earth takes 24 hours and 15 minutes.

The net result is that the velocity of any point on the Earth’s equator around its axis at around sea level is 1,307 mph (1,669 kph). At the top of Jupiter’s atmosphere, it’s 27,478 mph (44,222 kph), which is 26.5 times faster.

So storms are much more intense, winds are faster, and atmospheric friction makes it pretty hot along the Jovian equator.

It’s probably not that much different on Saturn, with the composition of gases in the atmosphere changing by latitude — and that’s exactly what happens on Earth, for different reasons.

Back to the biome. Earth in particular is defined by its climate zones, which were mapped and named by humans centuries ago.

The defining two lines are the equator, at 0° latitude, and the Tropic of Cancer at 23.5°N and the Tropic of Capricorn 23.44°S. What they basically define are the zones in which the Sun does its maximal and minimal height at noon thing as the seasons pass.

They’re named for the astrological signs that marked the passing of the solstice — traditionally, the Sun enters Cancer on June 21, which is more or less the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Meanwhile, the Sun enters Capricorn around about December 22, which is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Swap results and seasons if you swap hemispheres.

Anything north or south of these Tropics (which basically means “cut-off”) up until the corresponding polar circle is considered a temperate zone. Well, was, until climate changed started to fuck it up.

As for the polar zones, these are the areas that either receive sunlight nearly 24/7 during summer or darkness nearly 24/7 during winter.

So this is why we have ice caps (sort of still) near the poles, pleasant weather for a zone between that and hot (until recently) and then a pretty warm climate spanning the equator in a pretty equal band.

Traditionally, that would give us snow, permafrost, deciduous forest, Mediterranean climate, rainforest, desert, then repeat in the other direction. Different climates depend upon where you are on the planet. So does the atmospheric composition, with some zones having more moisture and some less.

And yes, that’s all changing, but let’s get back to the point.

Where a lot of Science Fiction world-building has fallen down is in actually forgetting the lessons of our solar system, which are these. Which planets are naturally uninhabited and which ones aren’t?

Welp, Earth comes to mind as inhabited, with Mars a good candidate as former life host, along with various moons of Jupiter and Saturn as current hosts. The common thread, though, is that we’ve only found life on the planets with varied biomes — mainly, Earth.

And yet, science fiction planet designers insist on thinking that they can create planets that are all one thing — an ice world, a rain-forest planet, a volcanic world, a total desert, a salt flat with iron oxide deposits under it, a swamp world… whatever.

Here’s the problem: None of those mono-biome worlds are ever going to naturally support life. They might manage it with a lot of heavy infrastructure dropped onto them, but otherwise not. But for the ones that do happen to have varied biomes, seasons, maybe even a big moon to create tides, the sky is the limit.

And, to science fiction writers, if you want to create an inhabited planet, make damn sure that climate and terrain do change based on latitude, axial tilt, orbital period, and other realistic things. Otherwise, nobody is going to able to live on the “one terrain, one climate” space ball you’ve created.

To take just three examples, if you have a snowball world like Hoth, an ocean planet like Kamino, or a desert world like Tatooine, you’re going to have a damn hard time providing food and water for your inhabitants.

I’ll assume that, since most of the inhabitants of the Star Wars universe we see are humanoid, that we’d need to support an Earth-like atmosphere and agriculture, and other typically human needs.

The obvious workaround, of course, is that these single biome worlds are stand-ins for similar places on Earth.

For example, Hoth is not really inhabited by any kind of advanced civilization, just the local beasties — mainly tauntuans and whatever it was that lost an arm to Luke. It’s only an outpost, and is most like an analogue of the few bases that humans have in Antarctica.

Kamino, the ocean planet, likewise doesn’t really have any civilization, just the resident Kaminoans who are cloners, and who are involved in a very secret project most likely commissioned by a Sith Lord. Think of them like oil platforms in any distant place, like the North Sea, or very remote oceanic research stations.

And then we come to Tatooine, which seems to have a thriving culture despite being a desert planet of the sandy variety. But, again, this one has an analogue on Earth and in the Star Wars universe and Tatooine itself was actually filmed not all that far from its terrestrial counterpart.

See, Tatooine is the Middle East, which provided a gateway and marketplace between Asian traders from the East and European traders from the West.

All this is well and good if you’re being symbolic, but if you want to write real science fiction, then make your civilized planets as complicated and varied as Earth.

Oh yeah — the one other thing that seems to happen a lot in science fiction films: Every inhabitant of a particular planet apparently has the same language, belief system, culture, and general appearance. There are exceptions (that are not accounted for by aliens) but they are far and few between.

You could try to write that off to the idea that a planet’s cultures cannot migrate into space until they become one, but I’d argue that we seem to be doing just fine right now while sending up astronauts and missions from multiple nations, and we even seem to have just reached the Christopher Columbus phase 52 years to the day after the first humans walked on the Moon.

That would be the “letting rich assholes go up there” phase, by the way.

Also, if it seems like I’m picking on Star Wars in particular in this piece, I’m not. It’s just that I’m slightly more into that fandom (slightly) than the other two I’ll call out now: Star Trek and Dune.

They all tell fantastic stories. And when it comes to terms of defining them as hardest to softest in terms of the science in the fiction, then the order is this: Star Trek — they at least try to come up with physical rules for shit; Dune — they at least come up with biological, genetic, and psychological rules for shit, but really, really cheat it with what mélange can do; and Star Wars —100% fantasy, but that’s okay.

Or, in other words, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Star Wars makes the mono biome mistake constantly. It should be really annoying that Star Trek and, to a certain extent, Dune both do.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to the upcoming Dune movie, which will just be the first half of the book. I am. It looks very, very good, whether it takes place on a totally desert planet or not.

Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

This is a short story that managed to win first place in some science fiction writing contest a few years back and it was published on BigThink. Since the subject of meatless meat seems to be coming up a lot lately, it seems only appropriate to dredge it up again. Bon appétit! Or, as my less-cultured relatives would say, “Bone an ape tit!”

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.

Friday Free-for-All #64: Shoes, car, Sci-Fi

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.

What is the best pair of shoes you have ever owned? Why were they so good?

Oh, this is a fun one. When I was a freshman in college, I bought a pair of black leather boots. I think I did it through the Sears Catalog actually, and mail-ordered them to be delivered in-store. (This was just pre-internet.) Now, at the time, I paid the equivalent of what’s about $315 now, which was insane. I mean, even though I could currently easily afford to drop that much on a pair of shoes, I never would.

But there was just something about these. They made me taller, I could wear them inside or outside of my jeans, and they came two thirds of the way up to my knee.

And they sort of became one of my defining traits on campus. Apparently, to people who didn’t know me personally but who’d seen me around, I was “the guy with the boots.” I also once loaned them to a good friend when he’d been cast in the play Picnic, because one of the defining traits of his character was… ta-da, the black boots he wore.

Funny story there, too. There was an opening night party after the first performance, and he would give me my boots back after each show, which I’d return to to him before the next — easy to do when you all live on campus. So at this after party, I’m wearing the boots and he and I are standing together. One of the big-wig campus Jesuits comes over to say hello to us, and proceeds to compliment me on my performance in the play.

It’s all that my friend José and I can do to not just crack up, so we play it straight as if I was the guy in the play. Okay, sure, we were kind of the same height and similar coloration but, otherwise, did not resemble each other at all.

But the crowning moment for those boots came during senior year (yeah you pay that much for footwear, it doesn’t fall apart) when we had an orientation week magic show, and the middle act was a guy introduced with these words: “Once I say his name, you’re never going to forget it.”

And goddamn, was that true. Turk Pipkin. And he was amazing. He started out with using a jigger, an Alka-Seltzer and a condom to basically create an entirely new visual to the opening theme of 2001, then borrowed a woman’s purse and proceeded to find a tampon in a cardboard applicator and smoke it like a cigar. (Yes, she confirmed later that he’d asked her permission and planted the prop.)

Finally, he said that he could juggle anything, so toss those objects down — and all of my friends immediately started chanting, “Boot, boot, boot.” So what else could I do?

I think he wound up with a scarf, a set of car keys, and my big-ass heavy leather boot. He gave us all the look of death, but the audience went nuts — and then he proceeded to juggle all three, and I could tell by that point that he was actually grateful for the ultimate show-off challenge. It made him look even more amazing.

I know that I still had those boots for almost a decade after college, and they really came in handy once my dad gave me his old motorcycle. But, somewhere along the way, my feet outgrew them.

Meanwhile, Turk Pipkin is still around, and he’s turned his magically skills toward even better things.

What do you hate most and love most about your car?

Oh, there’s so much to love. First is that it’s the seventh one I’ve ever owned (hence its name, Señor Siete), and the first one that I bought slightly used from a dealer. While it’s a 2012 model, so doesn’t have all the modern bells and whistles, it has enough, plus it’s powerful, comfortable, and has a manual transmission.

Plus it’s also been paid off for a couple of years now, so there’s that. And bonus points for that manual transmission: That prevents 99.5% of friends from ever borrowing it because they couldn’t drive it.

What I hate most? It’s a 2012 model, which means that it’s getting older, even though the mileage is low — just over 60,000 right now. Still… it’s approaching that point where regular maintenance on major system stuff might just start to exceed the cost of buying or leasing a replacement, and I hate that. For example, I know that I’ve got about a $300 brake-job and possibly $800 shock replacement to do soon, not to mention that the tire pressure gauge batteries have started to fail ($90 a pop per sensor per tire) and then there’s also that regular X-thousand mile service stuff.

So, yeah. My tax refunds and remaining stimulus checks are getting dumped back in there. Sigh. If only they also had car insurance for maintenance. You know — like health care for cars. But they can’t even manage that one for people, even though the car version would be much cheaper.

What Sci-Fi movie or book would you like the future to be like?

This is a tough one. I mean, Star Trek: TNG would be an obvious first choice if it weren’t for that whole Borg thing. And TOS maybe, except that humanity is still at war with Klingons.

So two other universes come to mind, with caveats. One is the world of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, but note that I only cite the original trilogy. Why? Because the books beyond that sort of melded into the universe of I, Robot, brought in the whole idea of “The entire universe wants to kill us,” so the robots meddled with the multiverse in order to create the one in which humankind were the only advanced life forms to ever evolve.

Yeah, no. At least this shit doesn’t come up in the first three books, and the idea of really advanced predictive formulas to guide humanity in the right direction is very appealing. And, hell, even the Big Bad of the second and third books isn’t evil at all. He’s just got a particularly well-adapted genetic… thing.

Now, the other Sci-Fi book I’d go with is the final volume of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 series, which comprises 2001, 2010, 2061, and 3001. I’d go with the last volume, in which humankind has made all kinds of amazing scientific advances, including building space elevators, colonizing other moons within our solar system, being able to revive an astronaut dead for a thousand years, creating the ultimate human/computer interface and, finally, figuring out how to keep an ancient and powerful race of non-corporeal entities from destroying the planet. Well, at least for another 900 years.

In case you’re wondering… yes. The third book has a prologue that ends in 2101, which is just as the original moon monolith phones home, which is 450 light years away. 3001 is the year that the answer comes back.

Friday-free-for-all #56: Travel, dark movies, clumsy, genres

The next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s the clumsiest thing you’ve done?

Well, I’ll nominate this one, since it had witnesses. October 13, 2020. This was when I was still working for a Medicare Insurance Broker, out of his house. Generally, there would only be the broker in his office (a converted bedroom), the Office Manager in her office (another converted bedroom), and me in my office (basically, the living room).

The broker’s wife was often there as well, but that kept it generally to four people, all of us masked and constantly sanitizing and washing our hands.

This particular October 13 was a Tuesday — and it’s Tuesday the 13th that’s bad luck in Hispanic culture, not Friday the 13th — it was about an hour and a half into the work day when I got up from my desk to go grab some printouts from another, empty office (the converted den).

Only, when I turned and stepped away from my desk, my left ankle was snarled by the cord that led from my phone to the wall. As I moved forward, it pulled my foot back. I overcompensated and then proceeded to pitch forward.

I stopped my fall with my hands on the floor. Unfortunately, there was a heavy wooden screen, painted with Chinese dragons, close to my desk, and I happened to head-butt it. Hard.

Everyone — as in the boss and office manager — heard it and came running out. I told them, “It’s okay, I’m fine,” but the boss looked like he was going to pass out and the office manager casually said, “You’re bleeding.”

I went into the bathroom and, sure enough, I’d managed to split the skin above my left eyebrow in about a two centimeter gash that was, in fact, bleeding a lot — but I happen to know that any cuts near the scalp do that because there are so many capillaries. Or, in other words, if you’re not William Holden, wounds like that are generally not as serious as they look.

I didn’t think I needed more than a few ice cubes wrapped in a paper towel, but my boss thought otherwise, and so it turned into a Workers Comp claim. And, to his credit, he’s the one who insisted on doing it by the book because he was just like that.

So… the Office Manager drove me off to Kaiser, who was already my provider, but also on the official list of companies the Workers Comp company worked with. It took nearly the whole work day, but I eventually got my wound sealed up — they glued it instead of stitched it mainly because I did not want anyone sewing my face up. I also managed to score a flu shot for free while I was there, but no COVID vax yet, because they weren’t really available.

And that should have really been it. I got treated, I made no claims regarding lost work time and the boss insisted that the entire day I spent at the hospital go on the time card as actual hours worked. As far as I was concerned, I was done with it.

Apparently, workers comp doesn’t, um, work like that, and over the next couple of months he and I were bombarded by paperwork. It was a seriously ridiculous stack, and when it became clear that a lot of it was predicated on me saying, “Oh yeah, this injury put me out of work and I need to be compensated,” I contacted the adjuster directly and said, “Hey, um, no. I’m fine. I’ve got no further claims, so I really don’t feel inclined to fill all this out.”

I did a couple of TelMed follow-up appointments with the doctors at Kaiser to assess the healing, and while it was hard to make out from my cell phone since reception at my boss’s office wasn’t the greatest, they wanted me to come in in person, but that was right before another surge, so I flatly told them, “No. Not now.”

Eventually, the hounding and the mailing stopped, and it might have helped that I left that job at the end of February and started the new one on March 1st. But still… one clumsy moment because I happen to have really big feet led to Much Ado about Nothing and the biggest load of paperwork dumped on me at once since the last time I bought a car from a dealer.

What’s your favorite genre of book or movie?

Well, this is an easy one, especially for people who know me. Science fiction — particularly hard science fiction.

And no, “hard” science fiction does not refer to some sort of erotic element. Rather, it refers to that type of science fiction that doesn’t pull Star Trek physics or other made-up bullshit out of its ass to explain how certain things are done.

Rather, it will actually apply the limits of science and physics to the world in which the story is told, then work around the problems from there.

Probably the finest example of this in movies is Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which demonstrates the hardest of science fiction. Maybe the only point where it gets iffy is during the “Stargate” sequence at the end, when Dave Bowman’s pod falls into the monolith (“It’s full of stars!”) and goes on a psychedelic trip to the Marriot at the End of the World.

But… as Clarke’s Third Law states: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that’s probably exactly what the unseen aliens had.

So the film gets a pass for not following known physics at that point, but certainly for setting it up that “Yeah, this really is a thing that could happen. We just haven’t figured it out yet.”

What was the darkest movie you’ve ever seen?

I can think of a lot of dark movies, but I’m going to immediately eliminate horror, slasher, or torture-porn flicks from the list.

Why? Because while they’re definitely dark, the situations are generally so far removed from reality that it’s hard to feel any connection to any of the characters, heroes or villains. For example, in the entire Saw series, I don’t give a shit about what happens to anyone, and the various traps and the fact that they work at all are so over the top that it becomes meaningless.

The Human Centipede series is another one that, while it is clearly meant to shock, only manages disgust and, again, no sympathy. The premise itself is completely idiotic. Sure, it does rely on some of Salvador Dali’s core concepts of surrealism involving putrefaction, defecation, and decay, but so what?

So when it comes to darkest movie I’ve ever seen, it’s got to be planted square in the middle of human experience and, oddly enough, I have two films that tie as winners. And guess what? They were both adapted from source material by the same author, who may or may not have bene a farmhand in Texas who boffed both William S. Burroughs and his common-law wife Joan Vollmer.

That man was Hubert Selby, Jr., and the films were Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream.

The first, Last Exit, came out in 1989, and interestingly, the screenplay was adapted by a third-generation Japanese American while the film was directed by a German.

I bring this up because while the film is set in the America of the 1950s, it definitely looks at things from an outsider’s perspective, so the result is a dark and nasty working class America that is probably truer to what really was than any Leave It to Beaver middle class white bullshit.

The film is full of junkies and whores, cross-dressers and rough-trade, teen-age pregnancy and union busting. It’s also notable as one of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s early breakout roles as Tralala, a prostitute who ultimately sacrifices herself, really becoming the Mary Magdalene to the Stephen Lang’s Harry Black, who is pretty much lynched/crucified after he tries to sexually assault a teenage boy.

Nobody comes out well on the other end here, and it’s a bleak portrait of people abandoned by the American Dream.

But it’s only an aperitif to the entrée of despair that is 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Directed by Darren Aronofsky and with an all-star cast, it is a dark and hopeless depiction of people with various addictions — speed, heroin, and sex.

A nice touch here is that three of the characters are hooked on “nasty” street drugs — i.e. heroin — whilc the fourth is a respectable Brighton Beach retired grandmother who gets her increasing doses of amphetamines from he doctor. So that’s okay, right?

But all four of them hit a downward spiral, and the conclusion of this film is one of the bleakest and most hopeless things I’ve ever seen. There is no redemption in this story. Only loss and despair.

And, so, it is very dark, indeed.

What’s the best thing about traveling? How about the worst thing?

It’s funny that this question came up at random now, because I just got a save-the-date reminder in the mail for a really good friend’s wedding, The catch is that it’s taking place at a destination that is about 315 miles from L.A.

This means a six-hour drive. Alternatively, it’s an hour and a half flight to Reno (not including travel time to and check-in at the airport, of course) and then a three hour drive west to the venue.

It’s going to involve an overnight stay, and possibly two — drive up on Friday night, stay in a motel, go to the wedding at 4:30 Saturday, back to the motel, then drive back home on Sunday. Yes, the wedding party has booked rooms at the resort where the wedding takes place, but those are all geared toward families and groups, and I’m going to be going it alone.

I bring this all up because this is one of those things I would not miss for the world, and it’s a perfect way to frame the question. Now, I have no idea why the wedding is there. It could be anything from it’s some location equidistant between his people in L.A. and her family elsewhere, or just a location with sentimental meaning, or there’s some other logical reason.

I’m ruling out flying entirely because it’s actually not the best way to get there — not when it involves crossing state borders twice and will take almost as much time — plus I’d have no control over delays, I also have no idea if I’ll have Real ID by that time (“Your papers, please!”) and since I’d have to rent a car anyway once I was up there, why not take my own?

The wedding is also “Black Tie Optional,” but c’mon. Never give me that option, because I’ll take it. Of course, that risks being better dressed than the groom, but at least that isn’t looked down upon as much as anyone but the bridge wearing white.

But what was the question? Right. The best and worst parts of traveling.

The absolute worst parts are the planning and preparing for it — finding lodging and the like, as well as plane or train fare if that’s your thing, making hotel or motel reservations, and arranging for a rental car if necessary, then figuring out the timing of when you need to leave from here and when you need to return from there.

Then there’s all that deciding what you need to take, and packing it, and making sure five times over that you didn’t forget everything — but you always will. And if you have pets you can’t take, you have to figure out how to get them looked after. Hint — in-home sitter is always the best option. I made the mistake one time of boarding my dog at her vet’s for a weekend, and she did not take it well.

Now top this off with budgeting, because all of these steps cost money, and you’re going to need to spend the time finding the best deals and prices and discounts. Don’t forget that you’re also going to have to feed yourself three meals a day on the trip — well, not including the dinner you get with the wedding, if that’s what you’re going to — and then decide how much you’re willing to spend on souvenir crap, attraction admissions, and the like while you’re there.

Got all that? Good. Other than the packing (but make a list of shit to bring) you should have it all locked down at least a month before the trip begins — although it might be longer, depending on the various cancellation and refund policies.

Oh yeah — this one is slightly more complicated by the requirement for all in-person guests to be fully vaccinated for COVID (working on it) and then to test negative three days before. But I really appreciate that part.

So, yeah. Those are the worst parts of traveling, and it really does make it sound like it sucks, whether it’s a weekend trip to a wedding, a weeklong family trip to a tourist spot, or a two week summer vacation with family cross country. It takes a lot of work.

But that leads to the best part of travel: Once you get there. Reaching the destination and doing the thing and having all the fun makes all of the pain in the ass stuff beforehand 100% worth it.

Trust me. Any time I’ve had to travel, even if it’s been something as trivial as a weekend drive to Palm Springs, which is only about two or three hours out,  the days leading up to it have sucked. All that went away the second I parked my car at my destination.

I know it’s going to be totally the same for this wedding. I’m still going to hate every second of putting the trip together — but I’m going to love it once I’m there.

Momentous Monday: Paul Verhoeven

Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch director who relocated to America in the 80s, is actually one of the most amazing and underrated directors of all time. The main reason for this is that once he came to America, he never abandoned his European sensibility, so while it looked like he was making genre movies, he was constantly perverting the genres.

Audiences just didn’t get it.

Then again, I think he’d been like that from the beginning. I have to say “I think,” because I didn’t hear of him until his 1980 film Spetters, and only after it finally made its way to America via the arthouse circuit. Even then, the only reason I deiced to see it was that it had sort of gay themes, three cute male leads and one hot female, and equal opportunity nudity.

I next ran across his amazing The Fourth Man, sort of a twisted next-generation Hitchcock thriller that did not disappoint and, again, involved a flawed and yet gay protagonist — keeping in mind that this was a straight director working in the 80s, and, again, while his gay male character is flawed, so were his straight ones — and he was never not sympathetic to any of them.

I didn’t see his true brilliance until I saw Soldier of Orange, probably his most personal film because it dealt with the Dutch Resistance as the Nazis invaded — something Verhoeven experienced and survived as a child. This, along with his earlier films, are probably what helped make Rutger Hauer an international star, by the way, although he got noticed long before Verhoeven finally came to America and worked with him there.

That would be 1985’s Flesh + Blood, a medieval drama and not one of Verhoeven’s most memorable, not to mention that it feels a lot like Hauer’s very recent (at the time) turn in Ladyhawke, with Matthew Broderick and Michelle Pfeiffer.

But then Verhoeven got a whole lot better. Or, in other words, he dropped his Dutch sensibility on the series of big budget Hollywood films he proceeded to direct for the next fifteen years, lampooned the hell out of his adopted country, and subverted the hell out of genres.

So… here are six American Films by Verhoeven, some beloved by critics and some blasted, but all of them masterpieces in their own right.

Hint: There’s a common theme in all of them and… surprise… it’s been there all along in his other works. I’ll just start with his big American Blockbusters.

RoboCop (1987)

Verhoeven burst onto the scene big time with the way-over-the-top violence of this one, starting with officer Murphy having just about every bit of his body blown off graphically, and then including such best hits as Jose Ferrer’s character knee-capped before being blown up, a guy being shot in the nuts through a woman’s skirt, Eric Forman’s dad being stabbed in the neck, unfortunate ginger being toxic-wasted into a red stain on a speeding car and, finally, the big bad being fired, shot, and dumped out a window in, admittedly, one of the worst-animated doll-arm death-falls in all of cinema.

On the other hand… what Verhoeven intended and only a few people got was that this film was absolutely meant to be an over-the-top satire of American culture of the time. And it was all right there — this was the dawn of the Reagan Era, when public prisons were being privatized, police forces were being militarized, and loyalty to company meant everything. Ironic, then, that Verhoeven made his hero a man turned robot, since this was also during the rise of home computers. His hunch was that pure technology would defeat human evil, and he might have been right.

Total Recall (1990)

Forget the abysmal remake of this film. The original is pure gold, because it pretends to be a Schwarzenegger action flick — but it’s not. Sure, he’s the hero, but the brilliant thing about this film, and where it actually pays attention to its source in the works of Philip K. Dick is this: The entire “vacation” that Schwarzenegger’s character buys is, in fact… entirely fictional.

He gets what he pays for: “Blue Skies on Mars.” He is exactly who we see that he is at the beginning, he hasn’t changed at the end, and it has all been a fantasy vacation. Notable, he didn’t bring his wife along. In fact, in the dream, his wife is the villain’s consort, so make of that what you will. This flick is just another brick in the wall of what Verhoeven is getting at. And, then…

Basic Instinct (1992)

This film got a lot of flak at the time for making the villain a lesbian, or at least a bisexual woman, but that was also missing the point. Why was this character not actually the villain but, rather, the heroine? Flashforward…

Showgirls (1995)

And, once again, Verhoeven satirizes America so hard that no one gets it. In a lot of ways, Showgirls is the flipside to Basic Instinct, but look back. That’s his thing. He works in pairs. And this was the hardest he’d satirized anything until his next film… While, on the surface, the film seems to be all about the tits, in the end, it’s really about the power of women. After all, who makes it out alive finally?

Starship Troopers (1997)

If you take this film on face value, you’re not going to get it. But, really, it’s the logical extension of Verhoeven’s RoboCop world. You’re especially not going to get it if you’re a fan of the Heinlein works it’s based on, mostly because Heinlein was kind of a Libertarian douche, by which I mean “selfish child who thought he was better than everyone else,” q.v. Ayn Rand.

But, in American terms, Verhoeven was always an outsider, and this is one where he went for it. While pretending to go all-in for American jingoism and bullshit, he actually made an incredibly anti-war movie, and made it funny and biting satire at the same time.

Hollow Man (2000)

Forget the recent Invisible Man, a shallow attempt by Universal to become Disney. This film, twenty years ago, is the real deal. It basically is The Invisible Man, under a different title, casts a Hollywood heartthrob, and then Verhoeven lets him do everything that any toxic male asshole would do, given the power to be invisible. And naked. And both at the same time.

And this film happens to be the key to all of the others, because the thing that Verhoeven has been toying with and exposing all along, even back to his Dutch films, has been this: Toxic Masculinity. And there’s not even a question about that. Now, I haven’t seen any of his films post 2000 — Black Book, Tricked, Elle, and Benedetta — but I have seen enough of his works to think that it’s the whole toxic male thing he’s been railing against since the very beginning of his career.

And why shouldn’t he? After all, it’s what the Nazis used to ruin his childhood and his country, right?

The Saturday Morning Post #49: The Rêves Part 27

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Book Three

Hunter sans Aisling

Joshua hadn’t slept well after that first bout, which was a long, disturbing dream in which he was chasing Simon down an endless Metro station, running while Simon walked, but never catching up. Rêves moved around them in slow motion, paying them little attention.

Joshua finally did catch up as Simon stopped to get on a train, pushing Joshua’s hand away and entering, the doors closing before Joshua could follow. The train started to pull away slowly and Joshua ran after it, but it started to speed up.

As the last car passed him, he looked in the windows and could see Ausmann standing there, laughing. After the train disappeared down the tunnel, there was a sudden burst of flames and a loud explosion, which woke Joshua up.

He didn’t see Danny or Simon, so he wandered around the place, had a glass of water, stood on the balcony looking at the stars when he wasn’t staring at the spot where Simon had landed. Fortunately, he had no intentions of following — Joshua just wasn’t like that.

He also knew that, since Simon had died, the police would be back for a statement, and he had to figure out what he was going to say. Tell them it was murder, or an accident? He knew that he owed it to Simon’s memory to insist that it wasn’t suicide, and at least he knew he was right about that.

And he’d been left weirdly free of complications. Simon had been an only child, and his parents and grandparents were all dead. They had their circle of friends, of course, but he could involve them later. He felt that he definitely had to let Brent and Drew know.

There were also the implications of what Ausmann had said about Joshua “needing his help,” as well as Preston and Danny insisting that Simon would be back. Yes, but not as himself. Would he just be an echo of Joshua’s memory? And, if so, how idealized would he be?

He returned to the living room and decided to play his hunch. “Preston? Danny? You guys still here?”

After a moment, the two of them materialized. They were on the couch, nude and spooning, so Joshua had no idea which was which until Danny’s clothes quickly materialized as well — he was the big spoon.

“How are you doing?” Danny asked.

“Oh, not great,” Joshua replied. “Look, you seemed pretty sure when you said that Simon would be back…”

“Well, yeah. That’s how it works,” Preston said.

“Are you sure though? And that it’s not all people who were already dead when they turned on the machine?”

“Sure we’re sure,” Danny replied. “We just met a guy who’d been killed the night before.”

“Really? Who?” Joshua asked.

“Some guy named Jerry,” Danny explained.

“And you know the guy who killed him,” Preston added.

“Ausmann,” they said in unison.

“Ausmann killed Jerry? Why? He was such a nice guy.”

“He knew too much,” said Preston in his best gangster impersonation.

“Ausmann offed his wife, apparently, and told Jerry,” Danny went on.

“Wait… what? I can’t even imagine why, but this is kind of helpful news. I mean, whether anybody knows his wife is dead yet or not, he’s killed at least two… fuck. Three times. So he’s definitely acting like a fugitive, which means he won’t go anyplace they’d expect him to go.”

“Unless he’s incredibly stupid,” Danny replied.

“Batshit insane,” Joshua noted, “But not stupid. It’s like he’s on a crusade to get rid of your kind, and if he can kill that many living humans that easily, imagine how little he’d think of the dead.”

“Hey, we don’t like being called ‘The Dead!’” Danny jokingly snapped.

“Yeah, please. ‘The Previously Lived-In,’ for sure,” Preston added, laughing.

“I’m going to stop him,” Joshua promised them. “I just have to figure out how. What time…” he glanced over at the clock visible on the kitchen microwave. Just after 3:30 in the morning. “Okay. I have some phone calls to make in the morning, but I’m definitely going to need your help, okay?”

“You got it,” Preston asserted, Danny nodding his agreement.

“But first, I really need to try to sleep again.” Joshua headed for the bedroom. “Oh. We’ve got guestrooms, if you want, or whatever’s most comfortable for you.”

“Ooh. A real bed!” Preston gushed.

“Not like we can really feel it, but it’d be a first in a long time. Thanks!”

They started for the hallway as well, stopping when Joshua called out.

“Hey, I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but… were you two, like… fucking on the couch there?”

Preston and Danny looked at each other and laughed. “Oh, I wish,” Preston said.

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” Danny went on. “We can’t really… I mean, parts don’t work like that.”

“But we can swap energy and have what feel like the most incredible orgasms in the universe,” Preston added.

“Basically, all boom and no bust,” Danny explained.

“So… ghost fucking?” Joshua teased them.

“Don’t make me come over there and cover you in ectoplasm!” Preston replied.

“Good night, boys!” Joshua said, waving as he exited to the master bedroom.

“Good night, daddy!” Preston called out, Danny slapping him on the arm before they disappeared into the guest bedroom, not bothering to open the door first.

This time, Joshua slept through the night, only waking up one time who knew when, and he could have sworn he heard Simon lying in bed next to him, breathing until he realized he wasn’t. He cried again a little bit. He could be prone to insomnia, and one of the things that had always comforted him through that was lying with his back against Simon’s chest, listening to his slow inhales and exhales, and feeling his warm breath on the back of his neck.

The next time he woke up, light was streaming in the windows and when he checked the clock it was nearly ten a.m. He dressed casually and headed out into the living room to find Danny and Preston in the kitchen.

“Morning!” Preston called out.

“We were going to make you breakfast,” Danny said, “But it’s kind of really, really difficult for us to manipulate physical things all that well.”

“I mean, we can do it a little,” Preston added, “But it’s exhausting as hell.”

“Hey, speaking of that,” Joshua asked, “If you can walk through walls, why don’t you fall through floors?”

“We don’t really walk ‘through,’” Preston explained. “It’s more like we push. So floors and the ground always feel squishy to us, but we don’t fall through the floors because we’re not trying. Although we can if we want to.”

“Wow. That answers that question,” Joshua replied.

“That’s a thing?” Danny asked.

“You kidding?” Joshua replied. “That’s like Sceptic vs. Ghosts question number one.”

“Oh, about the ‘G’ word,” Simon admonished him.

“Eye roll, okay, what?” Joshua replied.

“I’m sure you’ve been told, but we are not ghosts, we are Rêves. Kind of a difference.”

“Right, right, sorry,” Joshua demurred. “Ausmann got a little bit into my head with the ‘G’ word.”

“Have you managed to get into his head?” Danny asked.

“Into batshit la-la land?” Joshua answered. “No. But I’ve got some business to take care of. Hey… are you guys at least able to maybe scroll a mouse and read stuff on a computer?”

“That, we can do,” Preston said, excited. “It takes both of us rolling the thing, but we can manage.”

“Great,” Joshua said. “While I’m calling people, I’ve got some files I’d like you to look at, give me your opinions on them from your Rêve point of view.”

“Sure thing!” Preston replied.

“Is it about science? I hope it’s science, because I am such a science nerd,” Danny gushed.

“Me too,” Preston protested.

“It is,” Joshua told them.

“Sweet!” Danny smiled, high-fiving Preston.

Joshua led them to the cache from Ausmann’s computer and set them loose, then went out on the balcony with his phone.

His first call was to the hospital, to determine how to claim Simon’s body, only to be told that it was on hold pending a police investigation due to the circumstances of his death.

Well, that wasn’t good.

His next call was to Brent and Drew to break the news, and he got them to join a Zoom conference — surprisingly, it was the older one, Drew, who was the tech whiz with that. Or maybe not surprising, considering his years in the entertainment business. When Joshua told them that Simon was dead, the two of them just lost it, and Brent immediately said, “We’re paying for the funeral, shut up and don’t say no.”

“Brent, we’re both heavily insured, so thank you, but it’s taken care of.”

“You two were always so smart about money,” Drew chimed in.

“It’s going to be a small ceremony, but I don’t know how soon, because his body is kind of tied up. Possible homicide and all that.”

“Was it?” Brent asked, clutching invisible pearls.

“No,” Joshua lied. “I was kind of the only one there, but I wasn’t out there when he fell.”

“Fell!” Brent and Drew exclaimed together.

“Do you mean fell,” Brent started, “Or could he have ju— ”

“No. No, no, no. A hundred times over. Simon would have never done that.”

“Let us know when the ceremony is,” Drew added. “We’ll be there, of course. Oh, we’ve been spending so much time in cemeteries and with the dead lately, haven’t we? Weird times.”

“Indeed,” Joshua said. “Thanks,” and then he disconnected.

He thought about what the hospital had told him, then went online on his phone to look into who handled the whole death thing, only to find out that it was county — and then remembered Brenda. He found her number on his phone from when she’d called them both, and dialed.

“Joshua? What’s up?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Uh… no,” He started, trying not to cry. “I hate to tell you this, but… Simon is dead.”

“What?” she exclaimed. “Did Ausmann find you two?”

“No, no he didn’t,” Joshua insisted, and then he told her the whole “fell off the balcony” story. She sounded skeptical but seemed to buy it, and then he explained how the body was being held up, but that Simon personally believed that a corpse should be buried as soon as possible after death.

“Oh. Was he Jewish?” she asked.

“Um… yes,” Joshua lied, not realizing that was an actual Jewish thing. “So, it’s apparently the county that handles the whole death thing and all that, and since you work for the county…”

“You’d like some strings pulled?”

“Pretty please, with sugar and sprinkles on top?”

Brenda laughed. “Well, there’s one little snag here,” she explained. “You two really, really pissed off my boss.”

“Um… you told us to do that,” he reminded her.

“I know, I know. My bad. Which is why I’m inclined to help you, as a make-up for it. I just have to figure out who at county hates her with enough blazing passion to help you all out. Give me a couple or two, okay?”

“Oh, thank you, Brenda. Oh — couple of days…?”

“Minutes or hours,” she replied. “All I ask is that we get to come to the funeral.”

“We?” Joshua asked.

“I’ve got a family,” she replied.

“I… I had one,” he said.

“I know. I’ll do my best and get back to you. Bye.”

“Good-bye. And thanks — ”

Although she’d disconnected before he could say thanks.

Having no more calls to make, he came back inside to find the boys huddled together over the laptop, absolutely enthralled with the screen. He had to clear his throat before they noticed he’d returned.

“Oh, dude!” Preston exclaimed. “Did you read about what this thing does?”

“Telegrams to the past?” Danny shouted. “That concept just made me jizz myself. Well, figuratively.”

“I mean, do you see what you’ve got here?”

“Oh… fuck…”

Joshua just stared at them and sank onto the sofa, a wave of possibility and hope thundering over him. Of course! He’d read it but forgotten the most significant part. Ausmann’s machine turning the dead into Rêves was just a side-effect. Its real purpose was something completely different and…

“Telegram to the past…” he muttered. “Kind of like an instant re-do.”

“You’ve got it,” Preston replied.

“Holy shit.” Joshua exclaimed, moving to his laptop and sitting, not really realizing that he kind of sat in Preston and Danny before they moved away. He read the page they were looking at, then brought up a Word doc and started typing.

When he was finished, he looked up and added the exact coordinates, address, condo number and time, then saved the message and copied it to the USB drive hidden in his fake car key.

“Now what?” Preston asked.

“Now… I need to get to JPL, and you two need to go see whether Simon is back yet.”

“Are you sure that JPL is safe?” Danny asked.

“Completely,” Joshua replied. “I told you. No way in hell that Ausmann would go there.”

“I hope you’re right,” Danny called out.

“Oh, so do I,” Joshua said.

As the boys Supermanned off of the balcony, Joshua closed and locked the doors, then headed down to the garage and drove the Tesla like a madman out to Pasadena.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post #42: The Rêves, Part 20

Race against time

Brenda had come back home from her conversation with Mom pissed as hell for a lot of reasons, so she did the two things she knew she could do to get absolute privacy. First, she asked the kids if they wanted to play board games with Esme, and none of them could be happier, so they all retreated to the living room.

Next, she ducked her head into Jonah’s office. “If you want to binge some Oprah episodes with me, come on into my office.”

He just grunted, but she knew that this was, to him, the best way to tell him, “Stay the fuck out of my office” without putting it in those words — reverse psychology at its finest.

She did go into her office to binge, but it wasn’t Oprah. Instead, it was CCTV footage from Metro Stations but, more specifically, since she had figured out Joshua and Simon’s working order and timing of things, she started with the first station they’d been spotted at, then worked her way backwards.

Her goal was to find some way to contact them, and she was hoping for some moment when one of them would expose something on cam, like a phone, that would give a full name, or number, or something. She also quickly figured out that their preferred nights to work were Tuesday or Wednesday for the most part, and they never came down over the weekend, probably because the stations were too crowded.

Their outfits also changed, and she watched a sort of backwards evolution as later accessories — hunting tools? — disappeared on the reverse path. Still, nothing that would give them away.

When she’d followed them farther up the A Line into Pasadena, she had a sudden moment of kicking herself, realizing she’d been watching the wrong thing.

They had to get into the stations, and they had to do it with their TAP Cards, so she went back and pulled the time stamps from each station at every moment they had used TAP to enter. Next, she pulled up the TAP usage database, used a query to create a spreadsheet, then used INDEX and MATCH in Excel to pull up matches to the info she’d compiled.

She was practically over the moon when it revealed that all of the check-ins had been done on the same two TAP cards, revealing their numbers and card nicknames: ECTO-J and ECTO-S.

“I’ve got you now, you motherfuckers!” she muttered as she copied the TAP card numbers, then pulled the specific information on to whom they were registered.

“Shit!” she replied at the results, because Joshua and Simon had managed to register the cards with completely fake information, and use anonymous, pre-paid debit cards to fund them. She could tell on sight, because nobody lived at “1234 Main Street, This Town, USA, 90000,” and certainly nobody had the email address goodfucking@luck.com.

And while they had used the first names Joshua and Simon, she really doubted that they both had the last names “McBiteme.”

“Fucking kids,” she muttered, not realizing that both of them were actually on the older end of being millennials, and pushing forty.

She went back to the videos from Pasadena, and then traced them to the Arcadia station where, on a whim, she followed them back out only to see that they had come there from Santa Anita Race Track, and it was one of the few times they’d come down on a Saturday and had arrived at the station so early.

She marked the date and time on a hunch, but then wondered — who did she know at Santa Anita who could give her the info? This would be a major way in for one big reason: While TAP cards weren’t really that regulated, race tracks and gambling were heavily regulated, and no way either of them could get away with fake names or pre-paid debit cards if they wanted to gamble and actually win.

She wondered who she knew who had a connection inside Santa Anita, but then the irony of the answer made her laugh.

Rita’s husband was head of security at the place. Brenda hit the intercom on her home office phone.

“Yeah?” Rita answered.

“Want me to find those boys and get them to call you?” Brenda asked.

“Which part of ‘I already asked you that’ did you all miss?” Rita replied.

“None,” Brenda said. “So, your hubby still works at Santa Anita?”

“Yes,” Rita said. “Why?”

“I’m going to email you some dates and times. I need all of the surveillance cam footage from inside for those, plus any kind of pay out info he can provide — Tax ID, winnings, whatever.”

“Are you fucking shitting me?” Rita asked.

“Nope,” Brenda replied.

“Okay. I can probably get him to give you the video footage,” she explained, “But tax records and IDs?” She let out a belly laugh. “No fucking way. You know that. He’d lose his job, and so would I.”

“Okay, okay, got it,” Brenda said. “But if I can maybe point you to two specific people at a specific time and place, and he can use that info to give us the names and phone numbers…?”

“Dubious,” Rita said, “But I’ll ask. How soon you need this shit?”

“How soon did you want them to call you, again?” Brenda replied

“On it,” Rita answered, then she hung up.

Brenda typed out her email with the info, and ten minutes later a response came back, which Rita had forwarded from her husband. It contained a link to the CCTV videos from Santa Anita for the day she had requested.

“Finally,” she said, poking around until she found the point when Joshua and Simon had left the park to walk to the station and backtracking from there.

She jumped through the footage, tracing backwards from end of race to post time, and at no point did either of them approach the cashier window in order to collect. She was beginning to think that they were bad at this whole thing until very early in the day, when she caught them celebrating at the end of a race.

That’s when she followed them forward via the cameras. Maybe she had just missed the one that showed them collecting. But then, after they’d come downstairs she saw them looking around and then approaching a young black woman who was just sitting in the corner with her son, looking distraught.

There was no audio on this footage, but Joshua and Simon engaged her in conversation until, finally, Simon held out a ticket and handed it to her. She looked at the ticket, then up at them in disbelief, covering her mouth and crying.

Joshua and Simon shrugged and smiled, and then the woman jumped up and hugged them both before heading toward the cashier. Joshua and Simon smiled at each other before heading off to video Brenda had already watched.

She hit pause angrily on her computer. “Oh you goddamn generous motherfucking privileged little white boys!” she grumbled. “Who the hell are you?”

She had almost despaired running back through all of the footage until she hit a point when the two had arrived. Joshua headed toward the restroom while Simon waited, but then Simon pulled out his phone and scrolled — and it was in that moment, one single frame, that Brenda found the holy grail.

It showed Joshua’s full name, as well as a phone number. She screen-capped it, wrote it down, and refrained from screaming in joy.

“Suck it, bitch,” she muttered to herself with Rita in mind as she picked up her own phone and dialed, but after about a ring and a half, it went right to voice mail.”

“Assholes,” she thought, but after the tone, she left a very long and detailed voice mail, hoping that they would actually listen and respond.

But, assuming they wouldn’t, she decided on Plan B: As soon as the streets were passable, she was going to pay them a visit, come hell or high water. Well, so to speak. Also, note to self: See who she knew who could link Joshua’s number back to the one that had texted it at that specific moment…

* * *

Image source: (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Saturday Morning Post #40: The Rêves, Part 18

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Southern California.

Plan B

From the very beginning, Joshua and Simon had taken their precautions regarding the job with Ausmann, especially because it seemed to have a government connection, and so had created their own insurance policy in case things should ever come to a weird junction like this.

While they had to leave their cellphones and any other technology in lockers on the surface whenever they descended, that only included things that looked like technology — but it was amazing what could be hidden inside of what appeared to be a regular number 2 pencil.

Simon had taken to wearing a pair of fake glasses whenever they went. He didn’t need them at all, but they were crammed with their own tech, which also served as an invisible to others heads-up display on what the other devices were collecting.

One of Joshua’s favorites for the sheer irony of it was a cross he’d wear on a chain around his neck whenever they went in. He wasn’t religious at all. In fact, he was a total atheist, but inside of the cross was more of the technology they used in order to harvest information that would be useful later. Like now. As they headed to JPL.

One of the things their devices had done was to remotely key-log everything Ausmann had typed while they were in or near his office, so they had managed to capture a few of his passwords as he entered them. They also had a remote man-in-the-middle device, and that took care of the transmission of encrypted information that had been auto-filled by the computer, where they couldn’t see it — user names, website URLs, and the like.

They were also able to log in remotely to Ausmann’s own computer, although not the network drive — but today they considered managing that part necessary.

They had come up with two plans for JPL. The first was ostensibly to check in with Ausmann, if he was there. If he wasn’t there, even better. They planned to go down to the lab alone and then… “borrow” every last bit of data they could get their hands on.

That would be a lot, too. They had managed to conceal a 5Tb thumb drive in what looked like an ordinary modern car key, but the USB connection could only be slid out after a series of very specific manipulations of the base of the key.

They had long since determined that the guards normally didn’t make people put keys in the safe except under a few conditions, all of which they had tested over time. If there were any kind of fancy keychains or extra fobs, like a rabbit’s foot or dice or even a small framed dog’s photo, it would be locked up.

But if it was just a few keys on a simple ring, they were good to go.

Of course, under normal circumstances, a regular USB drive would be pretty useless for dealing with terabytes of data. At maximum speed, it would take a USB 3.0 device about 56 hours to download just one terabyte, but Simon had estimated that they were looking at between three and four.

However, they had figured out that the computers in Ausmann’s lab transferred data much faster. An ordinary USB drive put it through at 5 megabytes per second. Ausmann’s did it at 5 gigabytes. This meant that four terabytes of data would take about fourteen minutes to copy.

Still a lot slower than in the movies, but quite doable provided they had the time — and they had already reverse-engineered the technology in order to match the throughput speed.

This time, Simon drove them to JPL as Joshua remotely logged into Ausmann’s computer one more time, to check the logs again. “Nope,” he confirmed. “He hasn’t logged on in person or remotely since the afternoon before the storm. Shit, I wish we could get to their network from here and look at the physical check-ins.”

“It looks like Plan B, then,” Simon said, and Joshua nodded.

“Plan B it is,” Joshua said, and then he started typing and tapping like a madman. Plan B was basically to forge their way in.

In Ausmann’s files, they had discovered an emergency protocol that would allow access by certain personnel in the event that Ausmann became incapacitated or otherwise compromised. Of course, the trick was that Ausmann had to trigger it remotely prior to that incapacitation.

“I don’t think he really thought that one all the way through,” Simon said when Joshua had explained it to him. “What? Dude drops dead, but triggers it first?”

“Good point,” Joshua replied.

But this was to their advantage, because it wasn’t until Ausmann triggered it that he also specified which personnel were to be admitted. Ergo, Joshua now gave access to himself and Simon under Ausmann’s emergency orders, tweaking timestamps so that it would have appeared to have been issued the evening of the storm, with the corresponding alert texts to Simon and Joshua being similarly backdated and showing at the appropriate place in their inboxes.

The extra security in that was that the messages seemed to come from “The Pasadena Social Club,” and the texts themselves read, “Bonus Birthday Brunch, just show this QR code.”

They both knew what that meant, though.

When they had first set up this plan long ago, Simon did think it through as he was wont to do, and one of the questions he asked was this: “What if we get there, think that Ausmann isn’t there, but it turns out he is?”

Joshua thought about it a bit, then had one of his brilliant flashes. “Of course,” he said. “If we got the emergency message, then we’d think that something is wrong, so we’d show up worried, asking, ‘Is Ausmann here?’ Only two answers for that, at least to us. Yes, or no.”

“Makes sense,” Simon said.

“So, if they say no, we go full on emergency protocol plan, we’re in, pan comido. But if they say yes, we turn on a dime, act all relieved, and report in as normal.”

“But with the emergency protocol stuff all hanging out there for Ausmann to see.”

“But that’s the point,” Joshua replied. “I think I can rig it so that once it’s sent, Ausmann is blocked from access to seeing any of the texts or documents or whatever. It only goes to the guards and us. That’s part one.”

“And part two?” Simon asked.

“Instant kill-switch,” Joshua replied. “I can also rig it so that if I text a certain code back, then everything gets erased instantly, like it never happened. So… kill-switch program on my screen as we arrive, you have the text on yours. If they say no, he’s not there, then I just pop up my message, too. If they say yes, I hit the button and we start acting.”

And so it was set, they received their codes, and pulled onto the grounds of JPL and headed to the entrance of Ausmann’s underground lair with no idea what was waiting in it for them.

As it turned out, he wasn’t there, and the boys made a big show of being concerned and upset as they flashed the QR codes for the guards to scan. They didn’t have any tech to turn in because they’d left it all in the car, but agreed to a pat-down search.

Of course, they kept the key, Simon’s glasses, and Joshua’s cross, then headed downstairs.

Joshua had pulled a few other tricks on their way over. For example, from about five minutes before they drove onto the grounds, all of the cameras in the complex stopped recording. They continued to display live shots with the timecode, but at the same time only sent a single frame from each camera while incrementing the timecode.

This meant that while the guards could see them, there would be no record for Ausmann to review later, except for the two cameras at the guard station, but they’d planned ahead for that one, as well.

The outside camera would see and record them, no problem, as would the inside camera, for about a minute. But Joshua had programmed the DVR to reboot when its facial recognition software spotted either of them.

This would put it out of commission for enough time for them to enter the complex, and then the camera would come back online and continue recording. Meanwhile, about two minutes into that reboot, the DVR connected to the outside camera would be fed a short bit of footage to override the actual recording — Joshua and Simon leaving the complex, with the “correct” timecode on it.

They had managed to capture the footage on a previous visit, and even dressed identically to it today so that they would match. But the end result would be that anyone reviewing the actual recorded footage would see them arrive, start to talk to the guards, and then leave shortly thereafter.

The electronic log of their check-in they could erase just as easily remotely. Meanwhile, as for the physical sign-in, which was done on paper, Simon had conjured up one of the oldest tricks in the book: disappearing ink.

In the post-plague days, no one batted an eye at someone insisting on using their own pen rather than a communal instrument, so Simon and Joshua both carefully signed and dated their check-in with the trick pen, knowing that all of the information would be gone in fifteen minutes.

They just had to take it on faith that no one else would be checking in before that, given the circumstances, so that there wouldn’t be two tell-tale blank lines where their names had been. Fortunately, none of the guards signed in on the public sheet, and Ausmann didn’t have to sign in at all.

Once they got downstairs, they went to work quickly and efficiently, knowing that the guards wouldn’t consider anything they did out of the ordinary. But just to be safe, they had hacked one of the exterior cameras that showed part of the parking lot to add a little something to it.

Not sure of the sexual leanings of the guards but wanting to be inclusive, it superimposed footage of a young and very attractive straight couple starting to get frisky inside of a Smart Car, and then next to it.

Although they couldn’t see the results, their gesture had the intended results. Within two minutes, one of the guards had spotted the couple — on the opposite bank from the one showing what was going on downstairs — and that screen became the center of their attention, especially when that couple started tearing each other’s clothes off.

It had the intended effect, though. Four bored and horny men, three in their 20s, one much older, two straight, one bi, and one gay, all focused intently on the screen and ignoring everything else.

The video distraction would run for thirty minutes. Joshua and Simon planned to be out in twenty.

Joshua logged onto the network via Ausmann’s computer, then popped in the USB drive and selected and copied everything that wasn’t part of the operating system. As the process began, the countdown timer indicated approximately fourteen minutes to go.

“God, I hope their IT motherfuckers defrag regularly,” Joshua muttered to himself.

Meanwhile, Simon was casually investigating the various physical binders in the bookcase behind Ausmann’s desk, checking them for any information on the particular Rêves they’d brought in. When he found applicable pages, all he had to do was turn them successively. His glasses did the rest of the job of imaging all of them.

They also kept the feed from the outside camera going to his left eye, in case there were any unexpected visitors.

After ten minutes, he’d made great progress, and worked his way back from Anabel almost all the way to their first catch. Meanwhile, the countdown timer was accurate for once, with just under four minutes left and “29% remaining.”

Right at the three minute mark, somebody came to the front entrance.

“Shit!” Simon snapped.

“What?” Jason asked.

“Visitor,” Simon said.

“Who?” Jason asked.

“Who?” Simon repeated, using a gesture of his eyes to activate facial recognition, then switch to the inside camera. The answer came back in a few seconds as text: “Schliemann, Ausmann Gustav.”

“Fuck!” Simon gasped. “It’s Ausmann. Doesn’t look like him, though.”

“But you’re sure?”

“The computer is. Dude is shaved bald and lost the beard,” Simon explained.

“Shit. Wish I could see that,” Joshua said.

“No you don’t,” Simon replied. “It’s not pretty. How long have we got?”

“Two minutes, forty-five,” Joshua replied. “Are they going to even recognize him?”

“They don’t need to,” Simon said. “Biometrics. Wait, hang on. They didn’t notice him come in because of the video.”

“Hallelujah, that ought to slow things down,” Joshua said.

“Shit, I don’t think so,” Simon replied.

“How do you mean?” Joshua asked.

“Ausmann just walked past where that couple is ostensibly fucking.”

“Oh. Shit!” Joshua exclaimed.

Simon watched as Ausmann stalked outside, the guards following. “Okay, they went outside,” Simon said.

“Good or bad?” Joshua asked.

“It is buying us time. Okay, you remember the emergency exit they showed us when we started here?”

“No.”

“Good, because I do,” Simon said. “Time?”

“Minute fifty.”

Ausamann and the guards stormed back in, Ausmann gesturing wildly, then stepping offscreen.

“He’s in the fucking elevator,” Simon said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”

“Almost done,” Joshua said.

“We’re going to have to rip and run,” Simon warned him.

“Can you slow him down?”

“I… I… oh. Wait…” Simon checked and quickly accessed the elevator controls, then stopped the car.”

“Whew. There,” he said. “Tiger in a box. Let me know when you’re ready.”

“Thirty seconds,” Joshua said.

“Great,” Simon replied.

After what seemed like half a minute, Joshua announced, “Twenty seconds. God, suspense like this just makes me horny as hell.”

“Everything makes you horny as hell,” Simon replied.

“Wrong,” Joshua shot back. “Anything with you involved makes me horny as hell.”

“Thank you and no, we are not doing it at work.”

“Fifteen seconds.”

“How can you even think of sex at a time like this?” Simon demanded

“How can you not? If Ausmann finds us here stealing his shit, we are fucked. And not in the good way.”

“Well then hurr — aw, fuck!”

“What?” Joshua asked.

“Guards turned the elevator back on.”

“Five, four, three, two, one…” Joshua counted, then hooted as he pulled out the drive and hit shutdown on the computer. “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said.

“Follow me!” Simon told him, and they headed out the door and around the corner, running flat out as they heard the elevator ding in the distance. They came to the door that led to the emergency exit, Simon slamming through it and Joshua right behind.

Right as that door started to close behind them, they heard the sirens blaring that indicated lockdown. If they hadn’t made it through there before that, they never would have. Fortunately, as Simon knew, nothing past that point was wired up to seal.

That door led to a long corridor that came out on a hillside some distance from the campus, next to a winding and little-traveled road.

“Now what?” Simon asked.

“Time to test that ‘Come get me’ feature our car dealer was so big on selling us, I suppose,” Joshua replied.”

“Oh, right,” Simon replied. Even though they didn’t have their phones, he could still access the app on his glasses, and in a couple of moments, ECTO-42 confirmed that it was on its way to pick them up.

That was a good thing all around. For one, neither of them were sure how far or which way the entrance to JPL was from here. For another, the last thing they would have wanted to do was show up in the parking lot to ask nicely, “Please, can we get our car.”

There was a reason that they’d left all of their actual tech in there in the first place, and that was the Plan C which was the escape route whether they used A or B, or what Simon called “Plan Crap!” As in what would they do if everything went to shit, like it just had.

Joshua drove them home in his usual maniacal way, but en route one question kept bugging him, and he finally asked Simon.

“So… you said that Ausmann had shaved his head and his beard?”

“Yeah. It was freaky, man.”

“Why do you think that was?” Joshua asked.

“I don’t know,” Simon mused. “He doesn’t seem like one to make fashion statements.”

“Or one to catch head lice,” Joshua replied. “Wait… what was the most distinctive thing about him?”

“Oh…” Simon gasped, giving Joshua a look of sudden realization.

“His hair and his beard,” they both said in unison.

“Jinx,” Simon said.

“He is fucking hiding from someone or something,” Joshua said. “But what?”

“Well, I think we’ve got about four terabytes of data that might answer that question,” Simon smiled.

“Oh yeah. Oh, shit. Does Ausmann know where we live?”

“Dude, he doesn’t even know our real names,” Simon assured him. “The employment docs we submitted to him were fake as hell, since the whole job offer wasn’t exactly legit on his part either.”

“Really?” Joshua said.

“Really,” Simon replied. “Our checks from them have never gone to us in the first place, not like we’d notice. If he looks closely, he’ll see that he actually hired a 501(c)(3) that supports Peruvian widows.”

Joshua laughed loudly. “You are a goddamn beautiful fucking genius, Simon.”

“Well, I don’t know about beautiful — ”

“Shut up and take the compliment,” Joshua insisted. “When we get home, let’s dig in this dirt and take this bastard down.”

“I love it when you talk dirt,” Simon said.

They’d made it most of the way home when a call came in on Simon’s phone and the display in the Tesla showed “MASON BRENDA” and a number.

“What does she want?” Simon wondered, but Joshua gestured to stop him from answering.

“More importantly,” Joshua said, “How did she get your number?”

They drove the rest of the way in silence with the unasked question hovering between them. If some county employee could get their number, then couldn’t Ausmann? And, by extension… their address?

“We really need to find out what he’s hiding,” Simon said as they pulled into the garage, and Joshua just nodded in agreement.

* * *

Image: Adam Foster, (CC) BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons