Category Archives: Cultural Critique

The Fallacy of Focusing on National Figureheads

Vitriol is an odd thing. And I hate being the guy who writes about the “social media age” like it’s this thing that appeared in the last couple of years. Even before Facebook, early adopters of online communication remember the glory days of website forums, chat rooms, and other social media sites that existed long before we had the term social media (most people remember Myspace, fellow Edmontonians remember Nexopia). But, despite sounding like a clueless blogger, the social media age has reared an excessive amount of vitriol from the public. I’ve covered this before in other essays and it seems to be a topic I’m fixated on. I don’t know why I’m so fixated on it. Early adopters of forums can remember the all-caps ranters and trolls long before it became a topic of social media etiquette. It’s the focus and targets of this vitriol that’s fascinating me today.

The current US leader is obviously on the receiving end of a lot of this online aggression and that’s quickly becoming old news (though a lot of what’s going on around him continues to be fascinating), so I want to focus on my homeland of Canada, and specifically the current hate-campaigns towards our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In my last open letter, I brushed on the fact that public opinion of him has been dropping. The online comments towards him and his activities have been looking more and more, well, American as of late. But he’s also been the target of some odd criticism.

One thing I’ve noted that he’s been criticized a lot about has been his international presence. The fact that he’s been an active diplomat for Canada has resulted in this odd argument that he doesn’t actually care about Canadians and he’s doing nothing for us. This is very odd for a lot of reasons. The first being that a major part of the job of Prime Minister is having that international diplomat presence. A world leader has to interact with the world.

The second odd thing about this is this assumption that if the Prime Minister is working on something international, then he’s clearly doing nothing domestic. The Federal Government is made up of a lot more people than just the Prime Minister. In fact, as of 2016, 258,979 people have been employed in some sort of Federal Public Service and 197,354 people are employed in that core administration of Federal Public Service. That’s a lot of people and believe me not all of them are working on the same international missions that Trudeau has been publicly working on. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that a very large majority of these 197,354 core administration and 258,979 Federal Public Service workers are focused on domestic issues.

There’s one very specific online incident that this brings to mind. There was a story that came out about a financial pledge Trudeau made for an international issue (what the issue was escapes me and at this time I’m having difficulty finding the exact story that was cited). The individual who posted about it expressed that the money that was being pledged for this international effort would be better used domestically for homeless issues. This would be a valid argument, if the current Federal Government wasn’t the first Federal Government in many years to be developing a national housing strategy. In fact, only weeks before this post came across my social media feed, the Federal Government released $12.6 billion to municipal foundations for affordable housing. Edmonton organizations alone received $18.2 million. Yet, this significant amount of funding wasn’t mentioned once during the entire social media based debate. All that was focused on was the fact that the Trudeau government was giving funds to other countries.

I could speculate endlessly about why important information about an issue that this individual obviously cares about would be so blatantly missed. It got plenty of news coverage, both online and on television, and plenty of elected officials took part in major public announcements. But, none of those elected officials were Prime Minister Trudeau.

Are we treating world leaders the way we treat celebrities now? Think about the way most people watch movies. The focus is placed on the major star power driving the film’s cast. Sometimes, we focus on the directly. Rarely, we focus on the writer. Sometimes there’s even a focus on the special effects studio. But never do we focus on set designers, make-up artists, production assistants, editors, grips, camera technicians, or the hundreds of other critical roles that go into a film. The same is becoming true for government. All we can see are the leaders, totally forgetting how much more goes into any governmental body.

If you’re looking to leaders to represent your interests, you’re looking in all the wrong places. Further, we don’t need leaders. We need representation. And this is how our governmental system is actually set up. Unless the leaders are picking fights with other countries or moving on motions that will drastically change the organizational structure of a country, the actions of the leaders are typically highly inconsequential.

The motions and activities that the government tends to move on stems from the local representatives: the Senators, Ministers, Members of Parliament (MP), and on the provincial level the Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). Even the City Councils can have some sway with the Federal Government. That $16.2 billion being released for affordable housing organizations was a major ask by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, which is Chaired by Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson. Leaders don’t typically make unilaterally decisions on motions and Acts.

Everything that goes through government stems from motions drafted by MPs and MLAs, which reflect the interest of their constituents. With this in mind, it can be argued that yelling at the Prime Minister or the Premier or the President over Facebook is kind of an utter waste of time. If you want to see real change being made in government, contact your local MLAs, MPs, and even City Councillors. They are the voices in the ear of governments and they are the one who actually spur change. Not the leaders.

I would argue something similar for our southern neighbours. By no means am I going to say something like, “Just give the guy a chance, he might be really good.” But, what I will stress is that you shouldn’t focus your attention on trying to get his attention. Instead, look to your back yard. Who is your senator? Your governor? Who represents you in Washington? Those are the questions you should be asking and those are the elected officials who you should be focusing your attention on. The guy in the White House will never hear you, never pay attention to you, and frankly does not care. But your local elected officials do care and they will hear you. Get your local governors and senators on your side and you can do a lot more in Washington than you ever could by criticizing anyone on Facebook.

Again, we don’t need leaders. We need representations. And that’s how our government is structured. But we keep forgetting that. If you want to create social change, stop looking to leaders and start looking in your back yard.

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An Open Letter to Kevin O’Leary

Dear Kevin O’Leary,

Just… Don’t…

Just… Fucking… Don’t…

Just… What the fuck are you doing? Seriously… What the fuck… Just… Fucking Don’t.

Okay, now that’s out of my system, I can get into my rhetorical analysis of you framed as the start of a dialogue that I know you’ll never actually respond to.

Have you seen the show Ascension? It was broadcast on CBC, the channel that made you (in)famous through its Dragon’s Den reality series. And I stress that it was Dragon’s Den that propelled you into the public spotlight, and not Shark Tank for two reasons. The first being your rivalry with Arlene Dickinson, which has apparently followed you into your new political life. The second being, and I may be going out on a limb with this, no American who watched Shark Tank still has any idea who you are or what you do. And I focus on CBC because the typical conservative of your ilk tends to believe that the CBC needs to be defunded and shut down.

I bring up Ascension as an example of a Canadian version of something that simply doesn’t measure up to what we typically consume for media produced by our southern neighbours. The show sort of starts out like CSI in space, but does move into some interesting territory as the mini-series progressed. It doesn’t have the cult following that similar shows like The Expanse has, and many would point solely to the fact that Ascension is a Canadian program as to why it didn’t perform as well as it could have. Even being broadcast on Syfy didn’t bolster the show the way other space operas (and in my opinion, sub-par space operas) like Killjoys and Dark Matter have been. There’s something about Canadian content that feels like Canadian content and we automatically assume it isn’t as good because it’s Canadian content.

Kevin-O (can I call you Kevin-O? I going to stick with Kevin-O.), are you at all worried about being the Canadian content equivalent of the current state in American politics?

I mean, the comparisons are obvious. You’re a venture capitalist eyeing politics with the messaging that strong business practices are what could save the country. You practically stole the speaker notes (which apparently is also becoming common political practice). Many Canadians are furiously flocking to social media to stress that we are not Americans and we shouldn’t do things like Americans. The problem is, we keep trying to copy Americans, as seen in much of our Canadian content. And when we try to copy Americans, that’s when we tend to fail.

Even you, Kevin-O, are actually far from the archetype of the American tycoon. Your net worth is much less than most Wall Street bankers, which might be part of it, but your attitudes I’ve always found different. Yes, you’re a hard capitalist, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think the outward image you conveyed on Dragon’s Den at all reflects the real Kevin-O who goes home at night. While drafting this letter, I literally had to look up the company you co-founded (software developers SoftKey), but I could rattle off all the charity and philanthropic work you do. You’re big into entrepreneurship and financial education. You actively helped look for solutions to reverse climate change with Discovery Channel’s Discovery Channel Earth. Think about how many American politicians don’t think climate change is even real. Think about how many American politicians don’t trust the data from scientists who have been studying the effects of climate for decades. You literally worked with television’s biggest science channel to address the realities of climate change and look for solutions.

This is the Kevin-O who needs to run for public office. Smart business practices are important but when it comes to government, serving the individuals is far more important than balancing the books. Government is such a different industry from hard business that not all of hard business’ practices translate. This isn’t a simple transition from one to the other. You will have 35 billion people riding on your decisions, not just a board of investors.

If we look at the trend in modern Canadian politics, we can call Stephen Harper our George W. Bush, and Harper’s national isolation tactics and fear based (and frankly racist) domestic policy ideas are what caused him to fail. We can look at Justin Trudeau as our answer to Barrack Obama and even I will admit that Trudeau is starting to shit the bed a bit in public opinion. Was Jean Chrétien our Bill Clinton? I would argue that Bill Clinton was America’s Jean Chrétien and that Chrétien was Canada’s last truly great Prime Minister because he was distinctly and unapologetically unlike anything else going on in politics at the time. He followed no trends and the Canadian vote wasn’t a reaction to what was going on anywhere else. Canada needs to stop comparing itself to other countries and following the leads of others and instead look at itself, look at the world, and logically decide what’s the best course of action.

If we look at the case of Ascension or Heartland or Republic of Doyle or any of the other CBC programming that causes a chorus of groans from regular television watchers, we get a sense that Canadian content copying American content doesn’t really work. When we look at cases like Orphan Black, Kids in the Hall, Degrassi, Kenny versus Spenny, Are you Afraid of the Dark¸ and even Mr. Dressup, television shows with strong cult followings and set new standards for what content can do, you fully understand that Canadian content is at its utmost best when it stops trying to copy American content.

The Canadian political landscape is no different. We are at our best when we stop trying to take cues from south of the 49th parallel. I’ll agree that when Canadians describe themselves as “not American,” it cheapens the Canadian identity and experience. But at the same time, the Canadian identity is such an obscure construct that outside of waxing philosophical, it’s hard to describe. All you can do is look at the reality of the 35 billion people who call this set of borders home, look at how we can help things on the international front, and strategize from there.

So when I say, or rather beg (or maybe groan in frustration) to “Just fucking don’t.” What I mean is, don’t be that guy that so many Canadians expect you to be. Don’t be the guy south of the border, don’t be the guy howling at bad investment ideas. Be something better. You want to be an alternative? Be a real alternative. Don’t just copy what you saw work on TV. Work from a stronger and smarter plan. Don’t spew rhetoric about bad business and putting Canadians first. Explain reality and do what the best politicians always did best: help the greatest number of people. Period.

Don’t be the cheap Canadian version of something going on elsewhere. Set the standards and be something better.

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Ever the Optimist

This idea for an essay all started when I had a long conversation with someone at my office one day about, of all things, people. In a very large and general sense, people and where their motivations lie and if people, in the construct of a mass group, actually have any motivation driven by virtue as opposed to self-interest. She was a bit younger than me, 24 to my 30, not many years on paper but a lifetime to live through. And not to discredit her position based solely on her age, but much of what she said sounded very familiar to me. It reminded me of my own youthful pessimism.

This might be an odd construct, typically youth is paralleled with idealism and age tends to follow realism and pessimism closely behind. My growing up experience was different, especially while I was in college. Living off a healthy diet of Propagandhi records and Henry Rollins books, I was a ball of over-academic rage who wrote open letters to Glenn Beck and Thomas Lukaszuk, convinced these public figures with differing opinions of me were my mortal enemies and were cowardly for not engaging in intellectual debate.

Teeth clenched and knuckles white from tight fists, I devoured hours of MSNBC during the Wisconsin protests when Governor Scott Walker tried to make unions illegal, when Gabrielle Giffords was shot in Arizona, and during the Republican Party primaries. With consuming this much media, it’s easy to understand why my view of people, especially people in masses, quickly deteriorated. My optimism grew during the Occupy months, but when I started hearing the oratory rhetoric of some of the self-claimed leaders of the sit in, I quickly realized this demonstration grew directionless and became a self-parody, and once again I was left questioning the motives and virtues of people.

This is where this particular individual was at the time of this conversation. She was still angry. And this anger fed into her views of people. And worse, when I tried to counter her argument, pointing out all the good and amazing things people are capable of, she called me naive.

I don’t think my optimism is grounded in any naivety. I’m far from a well-versed expert on the world and even farther from the kind of person whose wisdom stems of years of experience. I haven’t even been out of university for that long. But my university writing life had me exploring the failings of so many prevalent aspects of society: the failures of truly supporting the arts, the failures of big-agriculture, the failures of luxury commodities that I as a true writer and artist would never be able to afford. My post-university writing life has me exploring the small seeds of social change being planted into the ground and slowly growing to seamlessly create new standards and normals in western culture. From my magazine internship, through my freelance career, and into my current career working with not-for-profits, I’m faced every day with individuals and groups working off of a crazy notion that what they do might make things better for someone else.

Hearing about the awesome things people are working on is kind of rare. Good news stories aren’t all that sexy and people are more drawn to the kinds of stories where someone is murdered, someone is arrested, or someone is the centre of a scandal. Those are the kinds of stories that garner clicks and earn online publication advertising revenue. I was impressed when Metro newspaper put out an all positive edition of their press across Canada to battle against the influx of click-bait news headlines and may be the start of a different approach to print and online publications. That’s not to say that online publications who focus on more positive outlooks to news stories don’t exist, but the old adage about news stories, “if it bleeds, it leads,” despite being a gross stereotype, still resonates for a reason.

This idea about the kinds of news stories that tend to garner the most attention I also find stands with online comment feeds in the stories. I usually take the time to read the comments, even from online news sources that I know is biased and slanted. I want to know what people think and how they react to things. Especially in my role as a professional communicator in my real job, knowing how people approach and will respond to stories and information is fascinating to me. At the same time, though, I have to question if comment feeds are the best places to be gauging public discourse. On the surface, it seems like the best place to view the activity of the masses. But, I have to question, what proportion of the masses do the comment feeds represent?

After reading through so many comment feeds, you start to see recurring names and recurring messaging. Spam bots are commonplace nowadays and it doesn’t take much to program a system to automatically comment on certain newsfeeds. This is why you see CAPTCHA fields as a part of some news sites’ comments requirements. Those without the CAPTCHA fields are obvious with comments from anonymous users either trying to sell Oakley sunglasses or repeating certain politically slanted messaging on multiple stories.

From my own explorations of comment feeds, once you filter through the robots, I realized that those who sit on online news stories, placing controversial comments onto stories and anxiously waiting for the replies they can refute with name-calling and reductions to political affiliations, represent a very small proportion of people involved in public discourse.

My optimism points pushes me to believe that the vast majority of people don’t comment on stories or share news stories to their Facebook feeds looking for arguments simply because they are far too busy working to make the world a better place. They don’t have time to sit on online news stories. They don’t care what other people think about their political views. But, they do occasionally read what others post and this can skew their viewpoints. I empathize with these people, though. Because they approach things with only the best of intentions.

I pride myself in being culturally inclusive and open and curious. I try to go out of my way to ask questions rather than pass judgments. This approach has led me to a lot of really great conversations and learning experiences I carry with me to this day. I’m from perfect and it took a lot of embarrassing and shameful moments on my own part to help me develop this philosophical approach to cultural aspects I don’t understand a lot about. Not everyone approaches things this way, and by no means is this the best approach for everyone, but not asking questions is what creates things like confirmation bias and can create an air of xenophobia that can cause a lot more damage than good.

When you consume media and you only see small snippets of things that seem foreign and unknown to you, it can be scary. When people are scared, they rationalize odd things. But at the end of the day, this fear is coming from a genuine place of care and concern. They care and are concerned for their children, their community, their country, so they react fearfully and, often times, aggressively to the unknown. It’s a misinformed reaction that could be quelled by an open mind and a willingness to ask questions as opposed to blurting out opinions. But it being misinformed doesn’t change that it comes from a place of genuine concern and care.

Even with all the hateful rhetoric and actions I frequently see through news stories and in comment feeds, I try to stop myself from my own fearful reactions and force myself to ask why. Why is this person saying this? Why does this person think this way? What information could this person use to help ensure that he is forming the best informed opinion possible? And I know I can’t be the only one asking myself these questions.

I am ever the optimist about people. I don’t know if this person from my office will ever let go of her anger and pessimism and it’s not particularly my place to judge either way. I do hope she sees all the amazing things in the world that I see. In my own attempts in working to make the world a better place, I’m going to keep asking questions, trying to understand everything I possibly can and try to foster dialogue and discussion over forming opinions and drafting diatribes. Because I know the vast majority of people come from good places with everything that they do.

I don’t think the archetype of the super villain who wakes up each morning to plot their evil and hostile takeover is nearly as prevalent as the amateur political pundits on comment feeds would have you believe. I think people are continually scared of an ever-changing world that leaves them confused as to what to think. Even my own essaying now is really just a tool to help me sort out my own thoughts, redirect me, and refresh my path. It helps to remind me to continually approach everything, and especially people, with the utmost understanding and optimism.

On Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes Address

It’s not often that I want to chime in on current affairs that already have a deafening amount of noise surrounding them. But it’s that level of noise that actually made me want to chime in. It seems like this is one of those scenarios where everyone wants to yell something, but everything being yelled is being muddled by the collective uproar on both sides on the controversy. By this line of reasoning, it seems apt to use this forum as a means to express a few more ideas about this scenario while hopefully cutting through the noise and having a clear message make its way through the chaos.

The controversy I’m jotting down ideas about is Meryl Streep’s address at the Golden Globes. But, not so much the address itself as the public backlash that followed. Some are cheering loudly. Others are resorting to pointing out her age and physical features as a means to under credit her stance. What I want to know is why is there a backlash at all? And further, much of the backlash has to do with the fact that Ms. Streep is an actor and that celebrities should leave politics out of their public appearances. This also seems to only be an argument used when said celebrity seems to disagree with your political stance. So, why should celebrities be barred from using their public platforms as a means to direct political messaging, even if the message can be boiled down to something as simple as, “please be decent to each other.”

I have to wonder if Ms. Streep were a writer, would she be receiving the same backlash? Obviously, it’s a writers job to perceive, interpret, reflect, develop ideas, and share those ideas through language. Many of those ideas being shared have to do with the political sphere, and as such it’s a generally accepted view that part of a writer’s job is to comment on the politics of the day, especially if they are columnists or essayists for publications with a focus on politics. But it’s even generally accepted that fiction writers use their craft as a means to reflect society and the politics that help shape society. We generally accepted this from writers such as George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and even JK Rowling. The question remains, if Ms. Streep were a writer, would her comments be more accepted as a legitimate political stance?

There is some difficulty for me separating actor from writer. They have vastly different jobs on the surface, and there is a very odd preconceived notion that actors are generally very dumb people, but when you boil down what both creative professions do, you simply land on what the role art has to play in the world. Actors have to create characters, convey those characters, and place themselves in situations that generally they have never experienced before. Those characters they are larger reflections of society, including the political sphere that influences society, and as such create connections with the viewers. This is why we find movies and television entertaining. We see ourselves in the characters portrayed by actors. In much the same way we identify with stories and arguments put forward by writers, we identify with character, which gives them their reflective weight as an entertainment medium.

With that being said, it takes the same skillset of perception, interpretation, and reflection that a writer exercises to be a good actor. It’s the same understanding of people and what influences people to act and react that helps an actor create a believable character that reflects and connects with us. Therefore, we can accept that to be an actor, especially an actor of the calibre as Ms. Streep takes a great deal of intelligence.

So, if we can accept that an actor like Ms. Streep is intelligent, why not use her public platform as a means to convey her political ideas? Many of the current celebrities who do support the current political direction that the United States is taking aren’t often told to keep their political opinions to themselves from either side of the debate. Those who support actually encourage those celebrities to keep expressing their favour for the 2016 election results. Those who oppose simply express their opposition and may even go as far as to boycott the celebrities’ products. But it’s rare to see an argument from that opposition that would suggest the celebrity shouldn’t use their status to convey their ideas.

This is also something often seen in the current political correctness backlash. The argument is often made that “PC culture” has gone too far and that it’s a part of freedom of speech to be able to say objectionable things. This is true. But it’s also part of freedom of speech to be able to call out those who say objectionable things and point out why they’re objectionable. It’s not a form of censorship. It’s a dialogue. It’s exercising that freedom of speech has to be able to go both ways and that those who say objectionable things need to be accountable for their words and subsequent actions that those words may spur.

If we accept freedom of speech, we have to accept celebrities using their status to convey political ideas on any side of any argument. We can then respond to their opinions and if their opinions are highly objectionable we have the ability to boycott as a means of protest. But this is how dialogue is created and it’s through dialogue that collaboration is created, which then feeds into activity. This is why some governments fail. They refuse dialogue. They hold themselves to ideals and labels and refuse to collaborate and negotiate. This was clearly seen during the last American administration when the speaker of the house decided that his entire purpose as a politician was to block any motion set out by the President. All that does it creates an ideological stalemate, which in the end benefits nothing except the egos of the individuals.

What I found most curious in much of my reading around this topic is the inherent hypocrisy of many of those who criticized Ms. Streep. Many either actively voted for or expressed some support for the new American administration, which is headed by a celebrity who used his status to gain the highest office in the United States. Yet this fact seems to completely escape them and they turn their fury instead to the other celebrity who dared challenge their belief system.

On Partisan Political Polarization

Around four in the morning, I was woken up by a light in my bedroom. It was my fiancée’s cellphone. She was reading poll numbers from the most recent American presidential election. She was terrified at the prospect of the new American President and not necessarily how it will affect us, but how it’s going to affect so many of the Americans that his campaign targeted. We talked for a while about what this is all going to mean and what we think is going to happen. She was able to fall back asleep but I was awake for another couple of hours with my mind racing.

I did the worst thing I could possibly do in this situation. I checked Facebook. A lot of the anxiety that my fiancée was feeling was reflected in many of my online friends. I stared at my phone, continued reading, and felt myself getting more and more worked up over the new leader of a country I don’t even live in. And as I kept reading posts and news stories and comment feeds on news stories, I realized that what was worrying me wasn’t necessarily the new guy in power.

The new American President in-and-of-himself is actually nothing new and his novelty is something of a misnomer. As pointed out by commentators such as Adam Conover, the new President’s crudeness is light compared to that of Lyndon B. Johnson’s bathroom meetings and recorded phone conversations discussing his private regions. Even some of the new President’s political stances, such as his hard stance on law and order, simply echo the likes of Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. There is a historical precedence with this most recent American presidential election but the precedence has less to do with the candidates and more to do with the electoral body itself.

The Republican nomination was won by a salesman. He sold himself and he sold some ideas to warrant being named on the ballot. But the ideas he sold were by-products of opportunism. He isn’t actually interested in the work that this office requires. He’s interested in the title. And to gain the title, he marketed himself initially to a base population, which then spread over time. The ideas of closed borders and racial profiling he presented during his campaign weren’t the scariest aspect of this election. The fact that the American population heard these ideas and said, “Yes, this is what a free country should look like,” is what’s actually scary.

This is where the historical precedent steps in. The population let itself be swayed by the kind of anger and ferocity that typically warrants itself to an all-caps Facebook post, and then forgotten. It was the creation of a non-existent conflict, the “us vs. them,” that made for a more hard lined voting mentality that eschewed logic and reasoning and let emotional reactions be the dominant driving force. And this isn’t to say social media itself is bad or shouldn’t be used as a forum for political discourse. But it’s not being used to its fullest potential.

The typical posts seen around any political discussion are anger based messages pointing out what’s being done wrong. The discussions that follow tend to either be in agreement of the anger or be an anger-fueled opposition. This doesn’t encompass the entirety of online political discussion, but the vast majority tends to look like this. During 2016’s Presidential race, that anger manifested itself outside of online discussions and surfaced during rallies and protests. Not since 1968 has there been so much violence directly associated with political rallying.

And this is where I start to get worried. Many of the posts I keep reading blame either side of the political spectrum for the violence, the disconnect, the crude tactics, and point to themselves and their stance as the solution. For a lot of what’s being argued, it’s all non-partisan issues. But non-partisan issues are being labeled with partisan offenders. And mostly, the non-partisan issues being blamed have more to do with common human decency than they do with any political stance. Both sides of the spectrum have a lot more in common than most people give credit for.

For a long time now, I’ve believed that the political spectrum is no longer a useful tool in political discourse. It simply no long reflects the complicated political realities. But more and more often, I’m seeing people hold on to their political affiliations as stringent parts of their identities and any challenge to their beliefs is a challenge to their character, which results in only more anger. This is something that has only gotten louder as more people adopt social media as their main course for stress relief. It often brings up the question whether we as a species are mature enough to handle the weight and responsibility of something like social media. Clearly, people read the things being posted, take them to heart, and act on them.

The social media discourse also tends to dwell on leaders as opposed to the local representatives who actions and decisions will actually directly affect people. The focus on leaders has actually developed a new level of celebrity typically reserved for the likes of the Kardashians. Watching and reading about the election has started to feel more like reading up on TV gossip than it does about the progress of politics. This is probably why qualifications and aptitude have become subservient to personality and entertainment.

The greatest frustration I personally experienced during this entire election process was witnessing everything unfold fully knowing that no matter what anyone said, the decision would remain steadfast. Nothing was going to break the decisions that the American public already made even before all of the pertinent information about what either presidency would look like was available. Great tyrants have proclaimed that reason is passion’s slave and no election has better illustrated this.

The ramifications of this election have yet to be felt. If the negative outcomes so many of us are nervously anticipating do come to fruition, the political leaders will receive the brunt of the blame. When in actuality, the American public has nowhere else to look than their own social media feeds as to why things have developed in this way.

In no way am I advocating for any sort of censorship or even abolishing the concept of social media. It exists and society has developed around it to the point where careers can be built entirely on social media platforms. What I am wondering is if we can be better with this constant open forum. Perhaps our political discussions can be more solution driven than blame driven. Instead of getting angry when things turn sour, we can use these online vehicles to discuss how things went wrong, what corrective measure can be taken, and what the hopeful outcomes can be. It’s still important to hold those in power to task for their actions. But constant open criticism and calls for impeachment over every small indiscretion does nothing for the political process except create blockades and deadlocks, completely halting the political process. And when the political process is halted, it’s the publicly funded projects, those we’ve collectively deemed essential enough to warrant government funding and oversight, that suffer.

I’m often called a misanthrope and my tendencies towards a frustration with people typically amplifies when I spent a lot of time reading through posts and comments. But my frustration isn’t actually rooted in a distaste for people. Quite the opposite. I really like people. And I have a lot of confidence in people to be kind, forward thinking, and motivated by only the best intentions. Even the results of this election, I can empathize where the American public truly think they’re working towards what’s best for them as a country. But their aim is misguided. They’ve been misdirected and a salesman saw an opportunity to take that misdirection, amplify it, and use it for his own gains. And that’s why we’re here today, reading a constant barrage of think pieces as to why things turned so ugly followed by cruel comments from people we will never meet and never interact with beyond the glow of a screen.

In a few days, I’m going to be an uncle. This addition to my family is bringing up my own questions about bringing more life into this world. On one hand, I have hope for people. That hope is illuminated whenever I read about amazing feats of engineering, breakthroughs in medical research, and imaginative discoveries about the potential of intelligent life on other planets and it gives me hope that my potential child will be a part of what drives progress forward and makes the world an amazing place. The other hand though is weighing heavier and heavier every day as I see people become so much more angry. Everything is an outrage and cause for outbursts of hate.

The American people made their choice and as a non-American I don’t have much choice but to accept their choice and hope for the best. But as I watch my own Facebook feed fill with more messages of anxiety and worry, I continually remind myself that people are capable of better. When we act out of fear and hate and anger, we make rash decisions whose consequences we can’t always anticipate. When we act out of logic and hope and compassion for each other, we make awesome decisions, leading to such cool discoveries who ramifications change the world for the better in ways we could never imagine.

I know we’re capable of so much more than this.

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Maps of the Stars

I’m always a little sad

That I can never see the stars at night

There’s always cloud cover and street lights

And even on the clearest nights

The sky never seems to have those bright lights

I keep maps of the stars in my pocket

I hold them up to try and see what I’m missing

Find the planets and the constellations

The satellites constantly circling

Match the names to the ones I hear

From people with telescopes and star atlases

Cutting through the cloud cover

And disregarding the street lights

Pinpointing the source of those bright lights

Those lights that take years to reach our eyes

Questioning whether what we can see

Is actually still in the night sky

Or just an image from thousands and millions of years before

Of something that isn’t there anymore

I want to see these things

See them with my naked eye

Before we ever know

If the lights in our sky

Are actually still illuminating the night

Or if it’s just a trick of the light

Fooling us into thinking

That our night skies

Aren’t actually completely empty

And we’re all that’s left

Circling alone in the darkness

Circled by satellites

Staring into a sky that’s empty

Atticus ate my Headphones

I had a hard lesson re-taught to me not too long ago: if it’s on the floor, the puppy will chew it. This reminder came as I got ready for bed one night, excited to relax, listen to a podcast or some music, and slowly drift off to sleep. I reached under my bed for my headphones. My wonderful, beautiful sounding, comfortably fitting, $100 Sennheiser headphones (don’t get me wrong, I know $100 isn’t actually that expensive for headphones considering I’ve seen some go for a few thousand dollars, but that’s a lot of money for me). Well, I found one ear plug, then a bit of chord, then one of the rubber bits that slide onto the ear plug for comfort, then looked under my bed and saw my chihuahua puppy Atticus with a little piece of black chord hanging from his mouth.

Puppies chew everything, and I should have known this by now. I grew up with dogs all my life and they have chewed plenty: from baseboards to homework (yes, I had a dog once actually eat my homework, but I didn’t bother bringing that excuse to my teacher and instead just took the detention, figuring one lost lunch hour was easier to deal with than literally trying to argue that my dog ate my homework) to even my Dark Vader action figure, puppies chew everything.

Why did I just go on for almost 200 words about this? Well, I tend to be hard on people for what I perceive to be not thinking. I pride myself in having a lot of foresight and taking the time to see any and all possible confrontations, complications, confusion, and consequences. This sometimes makes a decision as banal as picking out soup at the grocery store an extended chore, but I can firmly say I have never regretted a single can of soup. But, despite my own hubris into my own foresight and my disdain for those who don’t demonstrate this same skill, even I forget something as simple as puppies will chew anything and everything left on the floor. I’m not perfect, despite my occasional excessive vanity, arrogance, and narcissism.

This imperfection illuminated especially bright recently when I was laid off from my job. I won’t go into where my job was or any of the specifics about my job, but I will say I worked in communications (fancy business way of saying a writer) for a university research department. In short, I was assured that my position being dissolved had nothing to do with performance and was only a result of some issues with research grants and workloads. My supervisor even offered me a reference before I asked for it and went on to say that working with me was a pleasure. Part of me felt like it was sincere and just crappy circumstances and the result of being bottom of the totem pole. But part of me also felt like if I was good at my job, this wouldn’t have happened. It was a blow to the ego and one that I’m having some difficulty recovering from.

I spent some time with my future mother-in-law who’s a certified life coach to help me with some job interview skills and sprucing up my resume. The career coaching session quickly turned into more of a therapy session where I explained a lot of the anxieties I have been experiencing since losing my job. She referred to these anxieties as Gremlins for the way they constantly hang around and start pinching and nudging us when we start to feel good. The best thing she told me was that having Gremlins, especially after getting laid off, was completely normal. Accepting I’m not perfect suddenly became a little easier: I’m not perfect, I’m human.

A lot of what my future mother-in-law said echoed a lot of the things my therapist has been telling me as well. I started seeing a therapist back in August after I noticed my work-life balance turned more into haunting anxieties. As I’ve been going through sessions, I realized two things: first, I should have started this a lot sooner, and secondly, I’m obsessed with control. From my day to day work to social situations, I want to control everything. Everything has to be perfect. This isn’t healthy.

In fact, I discovered that a lot of what I was trying to control in order to save or preserve it was causing significantly more damage than any good. My control issues even rooted into why I avoid a lot of social situations and even have a difficulty in meeting and connecting with new people sometimes: my guard is up, I don’t feel like I can control how things are moving, so instead I completely cut it off. It’s not a good way to operate and I’m slowly learning to let things go and move how they move. But it’s been difficult. I’m making progress and I take some solace in that. But I’m also trying to make sure I don’t become controlling over how I’m not trying to control everything anymore. It’s been really difficult.

Of all the things said to me the past while, one thing has struck a particular chord that’s ringing true to me. My future sister-in-law said, “Progress over perfection.” Really simple. But it encompasses everything I’ve been struggling with. Not everything will fall exactly where I want it, but at least I’m working to get it closer. And that counts for something.

I find I’m getting less angry at people all the time. I’m not frustrated when I hear stories about silly or dumb things people do and how they clearly didn’t see what was coming. I shrug now, laugh a bit if it isn’t too tragic, and realize people have all kinds of things on their minds all of the time. Living day-to-day isn’t easy. And sometimes you just don’t see what’s in front of you.

I didn’t get mad at Atticus for chewing my headphones. I gave the headphones their proper burial in my garbage and thought about all the awesome stuff I listened to on them. I had a pair of backup headphones, not nearly as nice sounding as my Sennheisers, but they do the trick until I get a new job and am able to afford another pair of higher-end headphones. I thought about my Darth Vader action figure and my homework from when I was a kid, early victims of the family poodle. And I laughed. And I’d like to say I haven’t left anything on the floor since.

Mordecai’s Surrender

The last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen fell just a few feet in front of him. Mordecai immediately removed his helmet and dropped his sword. With both hands in the air, he called out, “I surrender! I surrender!”

But as he looked forward to where the enemy army once stood, all he saw was a single soldier, the one who just struck down that last soldier in Mordecai’s regimen. Mordecai looked all around, trying to find the rest of the invading army, but all who was left was the last soldier standing in front of him.

The last soldier removed his helmet, revealed a bright red beard, long and braided. He looked around too, trying to find the rest of Mordecai’s army. When it dawned upon him that Mordecai was all that was left, he locked eyes with him and called, “Wait, you surrender? What do you mean you surrender?”

Mordecai knew exactly what he meant. His army negotiated the release of many of its soldiers from the enemy’s captivity. And from what Mordecai’s heard, the enemy’s prisoner camps are actually really nice. He heard of straw beds twice as comfortable as the thin cots the soldier slept on. The enemy’s territory to the south was well known for its array of fruits, so the prisoners were fed with sweet exotic flavours they never tasted before. And the weather at the prisoner camps always seemed bright and sunny and warm. It was raining on this day on the battle field. Mordecai could see his breath as he heaved each of his breaths, anticipating his capture.

“I mean I surrender,” Mordecai continued. The mix of battle sweat moisture in the hair clung to his dark beard, making it feel heavier and heavier. He was exhausted. All he wanted was to rest on a soft bed made of straw. “You have clearly defeated my army, I anticipate your reinforcements are on their way. I surrender.”

The soldier with the red beard looked behind himself, then back to Mordecai. “No no,” he began. “No reinforcements. But I can see by your grand armour and your well crafted weapons that you could easily best me in one-on-one combat. I surrender to you, good sir.”

Mordecai couldn’t believe that this man was trying to surrender to him. He had never seen his army’s prison camps. He imagined the strict admirals of his army constructing the camps to be complete with the most grueling labour any man could endure. He pictured enemy soldiers sleeping on jagged rocks and eating nothing but the dust and mud caked to their boots.

“Sir,” Mordecai said. “You don’t want to surrender to my army. Our camps are the kind of living hell that could be only imagined by the most perverse of damaged invalids. You are much better off returning to your general and fighting another day.”

The man with the red beard crooked his head to the side and squinted his eyes, as if he were attempting to read an abacus. “Have you ever actually seen your camps?” he asked. “Believe me, when we negotiate for the release of our captured troops, they re-enter battle with the energy and vigor of a month’s long rest. We know of the fine meats and spices your farmers produce in your area to the north. And that’s exactly what you feed your prisoners. Believe me, this is most beneficial for both of us. If you bring me in as a prisoner, you will receive ranks of valour and I will get the kind of rest I have been craving for years.”

Mordecai felt for the man. He knew of the pain and exhaustion this war was causing. But Mordecai didn’t care about a rank of valour. That would only mean more battles, more frontlines, more troops to command, more work. But after talking with this man for a few moments, he knew he didn’t want to put him through the same thing. There had been enough bad blood and blood shed during the many years of this war anyways. There had to be a way they could both be captured by each other.

“I know!” the man with the red beard yelled. “How far back is your general?”

Mordecai had to think about this for a moment. “A few yards to the north,” he answered. “Why?”

“Mine is just a few yards to the south,” the man with the red beard said. “We could go to each other’s generals, say our entire armies had been defeated, and surrender that way. I mean, I imagine this is why you tried surrendering first and have been hesitant to take on my offers.”

“Indeed,” Mordecai replied. “But won’t the generals have a few questions as to why we’re just walking up and surrendering? I mean, if either of us were all that’s left, wouldn’t we just return to our own generals?”

“We could say we got lost,” he explained. “And we knew the only way we could find our ways home would be through the mercy of our enemies and the generosity of our admirals. They would have to take pity on us then. Besides, the leverage of a captured troop is worth a lot in this war. Did you know my land’s population is half of what it was when this war started?”

“Really?” Mordecai was shocked at this. The admiral’s messages had always been that the south’s armies had only been growing stronger and that they needed more troops. This is why Mordecai joined the war effort. “I wonder what our population numbers are now.”

“But you see what I mean,” the red bearded man continued. “Our generals would absolutely take each other prisoner, we would both finally get some rest and relaxation time, and our admirals would absolutely negotiate for our safe returns. This will work.”

From there, the two men nodded to one another and, without another word, walked past each other in opposite directions to their opporite camps where their opposite generals stood waiting for either victorious troops or news of defeat. Mordecai came over a tall him and deep within a valley stood a small camp. There were maybe twenty men standing around, some were sharpening weapons and hammering plate metal armour. Others were huddled over tables reading maps and placing figurines determining strategy.

There was a moment when all work at the camp ceased and twenty or so pairs of eyes all fixed on Mordecai. His immediate reactions was to raise his arms, demonstrating defeat, and calling out, “I surrender!”

Mordecai walked slowly down to the camp. The men around formed a group in front of him, all staring at him. None of them were armed or ready to fight. They knew he was easily outnumbered and there would be no point in making any sort of move of aggression. The men gathered and watched more out of curiosity then out of any need to defend their base.

Another man with a long red beard walked to the front. Mordecai assumed correctly that this was the general. He was more portly than the man with the red beard Mordecai met on the field. His voice bellowed a much lower tone as well.

“Did you say you surrender?” the general asked.

“Yes, sir,” Mordecai answered.

“Where are the rest of my men?”

“All dead, sir. I’m the last to remain alive on the field.”

“Then why not return to your general?”

“Dead as well, sir. The battle front moved very far to the north. Your men did quite well in the fight. We were all along the battle fields, the next thing I knew, the battle moved to our camp. The enxt thing I knew after that, everyone was dead except me,” Mordecai quickly lied, recalling the conversation he had with the man on the field and adding his own colour to the tall tale.

“I see,” the general remarked. “And I imagine that surrendering to me and letting your admiral bargain for your life and freedom is your best bet of getting home?”

“Indeed, sir,” Mordecai said. “Though I’ve heard quite terrifying things about your camps. I’m quite fearful of what I will encounter.”

The men around the camp laughed, as if they all had the same discussions that Mordecai had with the man on the field. They knew he was looking for a quick vacation, and appreciated the way he played up the situation to make it not seem so sneaky that he was looking for a nice rest.

It was three weeks before the exchange for the two prisoners finally took place. Mordecai spotted the man who he discussed his plan for a quick vacation from the war with. They were both standing in front of their opposite generals. A few other infantry stood behind the generals, as was the custom for a prisoner exchange.

The man with the red beard nodded at Mordecai. “How was your rest my friend?”

“It was wonderful!” exclaimed Mordecai. “I haven’t felt this energetic in months. Did you know the straw beds in your prison camps have bits of cotton between the straw? It was like a real mattress.”

“Really?” the red bearded man answered. “That’s fantastic. Did you know your prison serves three hot meals each day? Each meal with a different meat. I have only been eating cold oats mixed in milk for years now. It was really wonderful.”

“Do you know where you’ll be assigned next?” Mordecai asked.

“I believe there’s an Eastern front lacking a few soldiers that I’m headed to,” he explained.

“Oh yes, I know of that one as well,” Mordecai answered. “I’ll be joining that front in about one week.”

“Excellent,” the red bearded man said. “Do you know how many troops?”

“Around 200,” Mordecai replied. “Our forces are running thin.”

“Indeed,” the red bearded man said. “Our numbers are dwindling as well.”

There was a moment of silence, then Mordecai piped up and said, “There’s a large forest near that front, isn’t there?”

“Indeed.”

“Lots of trees and brush,” Mordecai continued. “Two men could easily get lost in there, even during a battle.”

“Quite,” the red bearded man nodded, understanding what Mordecai was thinking. “Could get lost there for the duration of an entire battle, couldn’t you?”

“Indeed,” Mordecai smiled.

“See you in a week,” his smile glistened through the red follicles around his mouth.

“See you in a week,” Mordecai smiled.

The Tavern

Vorak walked through the tavern doors, stopped at the doorway, and looked around the open room. He saw a collection of different things: a few dwarves, some elves, and a lot of men. There were only a small handful of other orcs in the room, making Vorak a little uncomfortable. He wasn’t used to seeing his orc brothers sitting with dwarves, elves, and men, drinking ale and regaling stories. Dwarves, elves, and men were meant to be smashed.

He walked slowly through the tavern, staring at each thing as he walked by. No one in the room paid much attention to Vorak, not even the other orcs. Instead, the other orcs kept drinking, spill bits of ale down their chins and onto their still blood soaked chests. The orcs smiled as the men, elves, and dwarves spoke. The ocrs’ crooked and sharp teeth jutted between their lips as they smiled. Normally the sight of an orc bearing his teeth would bring Vorak great joy and excitement. But this wasn’t battle, and it made Vorak sick.

He grabbed one of the other orcs, wrapped his hand around the other orc’s tied back hair, pulled his head back and Vorak drove his fist into the other orc’s face, pummelling him off of his chair and onto the wooden floor.

“You drink and be merry with the enemies!” Vorak cried. “We haven’t been out of battle but minutes and already you betray your own blood!”

The orc on the floor chuckled, then the rest of the tavern began laughing loud. Vorak looked down at his prey and saw that there was no mark on his face. Vorak had crushed other orcs twice his size with half as hard of a punch. Why had this orc not even have a scratch, not even dust from the floor on his face.

“Aye son,” the orc said. “You have no clue where you are, do you?”

The tavern began shaking with laughter again. Vorak looked around and saw all matter of creature in the tavern all sharing the same laugh at his expense.

In a rage, Vorak grabbed a table with a single hand threw it against the wall. Only for the table to never connect to the wall. Instead, the minute it left Vorak’s hand, it vanished. And in the same instance, it reappeared in the spot he picked it up from.

Once again, the tavern shook with laughter.

The other orc took his seat and wrapped his hand around his ale stein. “Best talk to the barkeep, young lad,” he said. “I was the same as you when I first got here. The barkeep will set you drink and send you off with a pint.”

“What magic has cursed this place to never be destroyed?” Vorak sneared.

“Just, talk to the barkeep,” the other orc repeated. “Oh, and make sure he doesn’t pour you any of that stout shite. You won’t be used to it.”

“Why not?” Vorak asked.

“No blood,” the orc replied. “Will never taste the same without the dwarf blood in it.”

“Funny,” a pudgy, red-haired dwarf at the table interrupted. “I always preferred my stout with goblin blood. You gotta boil those suckers for a long time before you can put them in the barrels though. You don’t know a burning arse-hole shite until you’ve drank raw goblin blood!”

The tavern erupted with laughter and the dwarf drove his hand to the table with every breath of laugh he let out. Vorak watched all the creatures share the laugh as he walked over to the barkeep. He was human, small, with scraggly long hair and a thick dark beard. Vorak locked eyes with the barkeep as he reached the bar.

“What kind of sorcery is this?” Vorak demanded.

“No sorcery at all, good sir,” the barkeep replied, smiling. “Just the best tavern there is for folk like us.”

Vorak grabbed the barkeep by the scruff of his hood. “Don’t play with me, wizard,” Vorak grit his teeth. “Nothing can be smashed. Nothing can be destroyed. You have cursed this place.”

Vorak lifted the barkeep and threw him against the wall. He saw the barkeep hit the wall lined with bottle of liquor, and then drop to the ground. But no bottle moved, and as the barkeep stood back up, he straightened out his top and chuckled.

“I assure you,” the barkeep continued. “It’s not quite what you think.”

“Then what is it?” Vorak barked.

The barkeep let out a long exhale, as if he had to explain this so many times he was taking the time to think of a new way to explain, just to keep himself entertained. “Let’s start with this,” the barkeep began. “What’s the last thing you remember before arriving to this tavern?”

“Being in battle,” Vorak didn’t hesitate to answer. “Our armies were smashing all of your kind. Hundreds of men slaughtered in the fields.”

“And then what?” the barkeep continued.

Vorak thought for a moment. “There was a little one,” he continued. “One of those ugly, small creatures with the large, hairy feet.”

“Halfling,” the barkeep interrupted.

“That’s it!” Vorak cried. “Me and some of my orc brethren spotted a Halfling, and we began stalking it.”

“Did you kill the Halfling?” the barkeep asked.

“Of course!” Vorak yelled.

“Did you, really?” the barkeep continued.

“Well…” Vorak hesitated. “Not right away. The Halfling spotted us and began throwing rocks at us. But then we crushed him!”

“I see,” the barkeep nodded. “And you specifically remember crushing this Halfling, you remember crushing him, or driving your blade into him?”

“Um…” Vorak hesitated. “Yes, of course! The orcs are mighty!”

“Do you really remember?” the barkeep asked.

“Well…” Vorak paused. “Well, I must have. Orcs are mighty! Halflings are small! What else?!”

The barkeep nodded again. “Well, we have a lot of creatures here with similar stories to yours. The dwarf with the red hair, when he arrived, the last thing he remembered was fishing and catching a relatively small fish and throwing to the ground in anger. He didn’t remember stepping on the slippery fellow and falling back onto a rock. Or the elf on the far side of the bar? Was adjusting his crossbow. When he arrow wouldn’t fire, he started to inspect the stirrup, right at the tip of his crossbow. Sadly, he forgot to remove the bolt before the stirrup started working properly again. I even have a troll outside who got into a headbutting contest with a brick wall and still insists that he won the contest because the brick wall collapsed before he did.

“So you see, you belong here,” the barkeep smiled as he poured an ale. He slid Vorak the stein and continued, “Fresh ale. I always remember that no orc ever likes my stout. Hard to come by dwarf blood here, on a count that no dwarf here can actually bleed. I’m rather proud of my stout, though.”

Vorak took the stein without a word and took a chair at the table with the red-haired dwarf and the orc with the tied back hair. He sat down, placed his stein on the table, then hunched over looking at each of the creatures he had for company.

“Well,” the dwarf began. “What did you in?”

Vorak hesitated, then mumbled, “A hobbit threw a rock at me.”

The table was silent for a moment, then the orc began chuckling, then the dwarf, then the entire room was laughing harder than a group of jesters huddled around a campfire.

“No fucking shite!” the dwarf yelled. “A hobbit? I thought the fish was bad. Barkeep! Make sure this boy’s stein is never empty. He needs as much ale as he can get!”

The Europa Virus

Subject number 03198 was administered water about two hours before the adverse effects started to surface. This was the longest stretch of time yet without any sign of symptoms and Dr. Norton was feeling confident about this one. She hoped that she finally made water safe to drink again. But just as her hopes were rising, so was Subject 03198’s fever.

The subject was in a padded room with a large observation window. All the subject saw was his own reflection but Dr. Norton could see right into the room. Around Dr. Norton were a collection of different machines all reading different data: body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity, all the essentials when you’re fairly convinced that you’re watching a person die. Dr. Norton was in the room alone when Subject 03198 started showing symptoms. She reached down and turned off the communication microphones and speakers between her and the subject. She never liked hearing their screams.

She often thought it was cruel that the subjects had a mirror in the room with them. As the symptoms got worse, the subjects watched themselves more. They would first start looking into the mirror to see the sweat dripping off their faces as the fever got worse. Look up every once in a while when they start coughing. The first time they noticed the blood on their hands, they always look up at the mirror, as if they’re looking through and staring directly at whoever was in the booth, asking, “What the fuck did you do to me?” The first time they vomit they look into the mirror to see if any if left on their faces on got onto their clothes.

When the vomit turns to blood, it’s like they don’t stop looking into the mirror. As the blood vomit gets out of control, they only ever seem to stare at the floor. The vomit stopping is the worst sign and Dr. Norton almost wishes the vomit wouldn’t stop until they’re dead. But every time the vomit stops, the subject looks into the mirror, and their eyes start to throb. They last thing they see is their own reflection as their eyes pulsate more violently and finally pop like week-old zits. The screaming is always worst by this point. Sometimes they scream for hours. Sometimes they scream right up until their bodies finally give and they die lying on the floor. And that’s why Dr. Norton always turns off the microphones and speakers.

Subject 03198 was no different. All the same symptoms, all the same reactions, and the same end result. Another dead person lying in the observation room.

Dr. Norton didn’t even have time to pull her eyes away from the window when Dr. Edwards came into the room. “Jesus Christ!” he blurted out. “Not another one! I thought we had this one figured out. What happened?”

“Same symptoms,” Dr. Norton said. “Same order, same reactions, just started a lot later. This one didn’t show fever until two hours after introduction to the water sample. We are making some sort of progress with this –”

“Christ on a fucking stick!” Dr. Edwards interrupted. “How the fuck is it being delayed? It’s a virus. It shouldn’t be delaying. It either goes or it doesn’t. How is it delaying?”

Dr. Norton took a minute to review the notes she made while watching the subject before answering Edwards, whose fuming temper was warming the room hotter than the subject’s fevers. “It could be that there were fewer virus cells in the sample. That could delay the reaction. But judging by the symptoms and how quickly Subject 03198 is currently decomposing, the virus replicates at an enormous rate once introduced to the human digestive system. This shoots down any theory that humans could have an immunity to a small number of cells. It’s not the number of cells, it’s the virus itself.”

Dr. Edward and Dr. Norton both looked into the observation room and saw that Subject 03198’s decomposition was like all the rest: a week’s worth of rotting and stench in a matter of minutes. Dr. Norton looked down at the body temperature readouts and saw they were just as high as all the rest. Like the bodies were so hot inside that it was melting the flesh right off their bones and speeding up all the bacteria responsible for decomposition. Like leaving meat out in the sun on a hot summer day.

“In any other case, most bodies drop temperature once all life signs cease,” Dr. Norton pointed out. “This virus is completely different. Like the other samples, subject 03198’s fever temperature is persisting post-mortem. Almost 110 degrees. Hottest still was 112, I don’t think anything will break that record. But still, it’s inhumanly hot. It must have felt like they were being boiled from the inside out.”

“They probably pray for death,” Dr. Edwards said. “I know I fucking would. There are fates worse than death and any kind of pain like we’re seeing from this virus for any longer than a few minutes and they should drop dead just to stop the agony. Funny, because of how quick most subjects die after symptoms begin, this may be the most humane virus there is. It’s agony, but at least it’s quick. Funny how that works.”

Dr. Norton knew there was nothing humane about this virus. Dr. Edwards rarely stayed while any subject was in the observation room. He never had to hear the screams and see the agony in people’s faces. He never looked into their eyes before they exploded in their sockets.

“Any progress in eliminating all virus cells from the water samples?” Dr. Edwards asked.

Dr. Norton shook her head. “The virus doesn’t react the same way to conventional sanitation and decontamination methods. Fluoride and chlorine do nothing to the virus cells, electromagnetic radiation only makes the virus replicate faster, even when we try to distil the water, the virus cells latch on to the hydrogen and oxygen molecules during vaporization. I’ve never seen anything act like this before.”

“So we can’t altogether get rid of the virus,” Dr. Edwards began. “And the human body can’t withstand any exposure to it. Our investors aren’t going to be happy about this.”

Billions of dollars had been poured into what was being called Operation Europa. With the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere, weather patterns became more erratic, then altogether stopped existing. Cloud formations became minimal and the total precipitation on Earth over the past few years had been equal to a single spring in Arizona. Water was depleting fast and it was Operation Europa’s job to find a suitable substitute for the naturally occurring water that used to fall from the sky and that all life on Earth still needs to survive.

The biggest investor was Albert MacFarlane, who was a billionaire philanthropist constantly giving to every needy charity on the planet. At least, that was his public persona. When a person gives that much money to help stop the spread of Ebola in developing countries and provide winter jackets to homeless people living through harsh winters in northern climates, you tend not to question where the money came from to begin with. Everyone working on Operation Europa was under strict orders to not question where MacFarlane’s money came from, but be grateful it was coming in.

“When’s the next shuttle set to launch?” Dr. Norton asked.

Dr. Edwards looked around briefly, and then spotted a computer sitting on a table. He leaned over and started typing and scrolling. “Next week,” he answered. “They’re planning on extracting twice as much water on this mission as the last. According t schedule, we should have made the water safe by now.”

“We’re just going to have to tell MacFarlane that the water won’t be ready for public consumption,” Dr. Norton said. “We just need more time to better understand the virus in the water and how best to treat it.”

“Which one of us will be explaining this to Mr. MacFarlane?” Dr. Edwards asked.

*****

Albert MacFarlane’s age was showing more and more every day. Murmurs were that the stress of trying to fund Operation Europa was putting deep creases into his botoxed face. His temper was getting shorter and shorter the more he heard about the water contamination. Like a child who wasn’t getting what he wanted right away and his tantrums were getting louder and more violent.

“Ms. Norton,” MacFarlane began. “You do understand that the public unveiling is in a matter of weeks. The next trip to Europa is meant to fill the glasses of all the investors and all the politicians behind Operation Europa. Fresh, clean water for the world. I don’t understand how water, simple water, can be killing so many people.”

Dr. Norton shook where she stood. She looked down at her pale, frail hands and realized that she was in the room alone with Albert MacFarlane. She knew his reputation of violent eruptions. She was terrified as to how drastically he would explode at the prospect of cancelling the cocktail party where the operation he heavily funded would save the world.

She tried to speak, but MacFarlane leaned forward and put his index finger in front of his mouth, shushing her before she could get a full word out. “Please, keep in mind Ms. Norton –”

“Dr. Norton,” she blurted out.

“My apologies,” MacFarlane smiled. “Please keep in mind, Doctor Norton, I’m not a sciency kind of guy. So try to explain this to me in a way that I can understand.”

Dr. Norton took a deep breath, trying to slow down her jackhammering heart, and began. “All water has microbes and small organisms in it. They’re not bad for us, in fact a lot of the microscopic life in water is essential for humans. The water we’re extracting from Europa is similar in that way, only the microscopic life in the water from there is killing whoever drinks it.”

MacFarlane squinted, his hand on his chin. Dr. Norton could tell that he was listening, but couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Well, why would this micro-whatever in water that usually helps us live kill us now?”

“We think it’s because the water is coming from a different planetary source altogether,” Dr. Norton continued. “Europa formed around Jupiter, and Jupiter is a mass of gas almost entirely composed of hydrogen with some helium and sulfur. Where Earth has a lot of carbon, and all life on Earth is carbon based. We think that the microscopic life in the water from Europa is evolved from hydrogen, or even sulfur, rather than carbon, and so when it’s introduced to our bodies, our bodies completely reject it, like an abomination. Things mix that shouldn’t mix and create a chemical reaction that heat the body from the inside out and completely destroy it.”

MacFarlane leaned back in his chair. “And there’s absolutely no way to destroy this virus? No cure? No medicine? How am I supposed to tell all the people who invested billions of dollars into this and all the big players passing bills to support this that it’s all a waste now?”

“It hasn’t been a total waste,” Dr. Norton replied. “Life forms evolving from anything other than carbon was completely theoretical up to this point. This is actually a huge discovery if we’re correct –”

“It doesn’t mean shit unless I have water to sell!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m not funding this for the sciency mumbo-jumbo bullshit! I’m funding this to get some water back on this planet, sell it to everyone, and get my name down in history as the guy who saved the fucking world! And I’ll tell you what I’m starting to think. I think that you’re making these results up and pretending this water is making people sick so that the lab can stay open, you can Edwards and keep your jobs and keep playing scientists with my money!”

“Sir, I can assure you,” Norton’s voice was shaking, her hands were trembling, and she was holding back tears for the sake of staying professional looking. “The biological threat that this water is imposing—”

“Threat nothing!” MacFarlane screamed. “I’m serving this goddamn water at the party straight from the fucking plant and without any of your science-bullshit! And when you see everyone drink it fine, you’ll be fired and I’ll sue you for every paycheque of yours that I signed!”

*****

The worst part has always been watching people die. Norton knew that was obvious. If it ever got to the point where they could talk about the experiments and how people had been reacting to Europa’s water, the first thing she always knew she would say would be that watching people die was the worst.

The second worst was always the clean up. The funders behind Operation Europa were more than happy to supply the lab with a bio-waste disposal suit. Its metal armour and mechanical gears moving every joint in sync with its pilot’s body was built for cleaning out massive waste deposits on warfields. It could lift twenty human carcasses at a time and still be able to walk as if it was carrying a bag of groceries. Norton knew a bio-waste disposal suit like this was overkill for such a small lab. She heard that the team even had some difficulty getting it into the building at first. The suit was already in its place by the observation room by the time she was hired to be part of the research and experimentation team. She asked Edwards about the suit and why the heavy precaution. Edwards explained that the investors were worried about airborne pathogens coming out of whatever virus was infecting the test subject. The bio-waste disposal suit was the best tool for such a messy and dangerous job.

Norton climbed into the suit, slid her arms and legs into the padded opening through each of the suit’s limbs, used the suit’s arms to close the chest plate and fasten the safety mask and helmet. Norton adjusted the smell blockers, an addition she made to the suit after the smell of cleaning the subjects’ remains became too unbearable, and walked into the room smeared with fluids. Norton could have sworn the walls were still vibrating with the sounds of subject 03198’s screams.

Inside each of the arms of the suit were a set of control, small notches and buttons for each of the suit’s sanitation functions. It took Norton some time to get used to all the controls and remembers which function could be found with what. But she was a fast learner.

She moved through the room, mapping out how would be best and most efficient to clean what was left of subject 03198. She moved her right arm inside of the padded tube, found the switch to turn on the hot water power-spray, and started soaking the room. The tiny red bits of person smeared on the walls and along the floor moved easily. Nothing would settle on the coated walls and floors specifically designed to withstand the kind of mess drinking Europa’s water causes.

She soaked the room and moved all of the human remains into a single pile in the middle of the floor and thought about how all these small bits of mess make a human. A complete human laid in front of her, all the pieces were there.

*****

Norton and Edwards continued the experiments as scheduled, hoping to god they find something before the cocktail party when the psychopathic philanthropist pours the toxic water in hopes to out-gustoing their research. The weeks passed with no progress made. They watched the shuttle launch knowing that it was the shuttle that would bring the deaths of a few hundred people. They watched the shuttle return like the four horsemen come to bring the end. And still, they found nothing to slow down the virus that lives in the ice found on the moon Europa.

The cocktail party was held in the same facility as where all of Operation Europa was conducted. The shuttle and exploration teams used the upper floors, the science and research departments were in the underground floors, and the main floor was reserved for the massive reception area with water fountains, gold plated steps, and a reception hall.

Norton and Edwards both attended the party in full formal wear. They looked around hesitantly, not sure if they’re more terrified to watch a room full of people die, or see them live and know that every penny they will ever make from that moment forward will go right back to Albert MacFarlane. They knew their science was solid, but MacFarlane was ruthless. Norton half expected that MacFarlane would fill everyone’s glasses with the last of the Earth’s water, just to prove a point and save face.

They watched the servers hand out the crystal glasses of water. The guests all held their glasses by the dainty tips of their fingers. MacFarlane stood up to the podium and started making a speech. Norton wasn’t listening. She was watching the guests.

“Did we ever test a subject without any pre-emptive sanitation process?” Norton asked Edwards.

“The first ones, yeah,” he answered. “All the same results. We burned the bodies right away because we were afraid of contamination.”

“What do you mean you burned the bodies?” Norton asked. “They completely decompose in minutes. What’s left to cremate?”

Edwards stared out silent for a minute. Then answered, “Those ones didn’t decompose right away. We didn’t wait long enough to see what would happen. We were so scared about contamination, we just burned the bodies within minutes. Do you think we missed something?”

“We’re about to find out.”

MacFarlane finished his speech and everyone applauded. He held up his crystal glass and took a long drink of water. As he finished swallowing, he stared out and locked eyes with Norton.

Norton held her gaze in MacFarlane’s eyes for a moment, then looked out into the crowd, to catch everyone just as they swallowed. The sounds of joyous amazement filled the room, like a crowd who just witnessed a magician pull off an amazing trick. They smiled and laughed and mingled amongst themselves. Norton and Edwards kept staring out, observing and wondering what was going to happen next.

There were a few moments where it almost looked like MacFarlane might have actually filled everyone’s glasses with Earth water. The mingling kept going, MacFarlane’s icy cold stare jabbed at Norton and Edwards every time they looked in his direction. Norton wondered if he would have gone that far just to make them look bad and himself look good.

The first person at the party started vomiting about five minutes after the toast. It was an older man in a pinstripe suit. He tried covering his mouth and running out of the room. But his insides were spilling on the floor before he could make it anywhere near the hall’s exit. People were shocked, they stared at him with disgust. Then the second person started vomiting, this time an older woman in a golden gown. She keeled over, holding her stomach, and spilled herself right where she was standing. She didn’t even bother trying to move, like she knew there was no point.

One by one, all the guests were getting more and more sick. All except MacFarlane who stood on the stage looking down with wide eyes at everyone dying in front of him. He exhibited no signs. Norton knew right away that every guest had water from Europa, but MacFarlane gave himself Earth water. He was too much of a coward to drink it himself.

The shrill screams of everyone in the hall all dying at once filled the room like a television tuned to white noise. “Why are you just standing there!” someone screamed at Norton and Edwards. There was nothing anyone could do to help these people, and Norton and Edwards knew that. So they continued to observe, because there would no other good that could come of this situation except for maybe a better understanding of how the virus progresses in people. This was no longer a banquet and these people no longer had any hope. They were simply the next batch of subjects in this ongoing experiment.

A hand grabbed Norton by the shoulder and she looked back to see MacFarlane with a frantic and panicked look on his face. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, leaving long streaks of fear along his face. “Why didn’t you tell me the water was this dangerous!” his voice screeched through his teeth.

“We did tell you,” Norton answered. “You didn’t listen.”

The putrid smell of rot was already filling the room. It was no different from the other subjects. All the same symptoms in the same order and the same reaction from everyone suffering from the virus. It was a quick death, but the pain and anguish that accompanied it must have made it feel like a thousand years of suffering.

“I’ll call for sanitation and clean up,” Edwards said.

“No, wait,” Norton stopped Edwards. “You said you destroyed the bodies almost immediately last time someone was administered completely untreated water? I want to see what the bodies are like after an hour. I want to see if untreated water acts differently post-mortem than treated water.”

“Why?” Edwards asked.

“The virus acts the same in a living host, but what if treating the water actually does make a change, but the change isn’t prevalent until after the body dies?”

“What will that prove?”

“That the treatments are doing something. That all of our efforts didn’t leave us empty handed. And if it acts differently post-mortem, then there has to be a point where the virus acts differently while the host is still alive.”

Norton knew where her brain was heading with this idea, but she wasn’t sure if Edwards saw it too. He stared at her in silence, barely blinking, like his brain was trying to process what he just heard but couldn’t come to any sort of logical reasoning of his own. He was lost in Norton’s idea and completely froze trying to get it to make sense.

“Trust me,” she tried to assure him. “This will bring some progress.”

The acrid smell of rotting flesh started to bother Norton. She coughed into her sleeve, trying to keep down the contents of her stomach. Her instincts told her to get out of that room before she becomes violently ill. But she knew she couldn’t miss any minute. This was crucial.

Forty-five minutes passed and the bodies were almost completely liquid. Even the bone melted with the flesh and all that was left of the banquet guests was a puddle of human remains. Norton pulled her phone from her pocket and started taking photographs. She looked around as she was snapping photos and noticed that MacFarlane was nowhere to be seen. The sounds of screaming echoed through the hall and caught the attentions of both Norton and Edwards. It sounded like MacFarlane’s shrill, panicking voice.

Edwards tried stepping in the direction the sound came from and stepped directly into the liquefied human. The hiss of a burning acid sang out from under his foot and steam rose up, reeking of burning hair and melting rubber. He quickly jumped back and pulled his shoe off and threw it to the ground. The hissing and steaming continued as the shoe completely dissolve in front of them.

Edwards slipped off his other shoe and touched the gelatinous mass that once was a room full of people. The hissing rose up again and his other shoe dissolved as quickly as the first. He threw it to the ground and examined the bit of ash left.

“Corrosive,” he said. “Extremely corrosive. Some of Jupiter’s sulphuric atmosphere must be in this water as well. It’s mixing with the hydrogen of the water and the carbon and oxygen in the people. The pH levels are probably comparable to sulphuric acid, but this is like a much stronger dose.”

“Why isn’t it dissolving the floor?” Norton asked.

“These floors have the same coating as in the observation rooms,” Edwards explained. “A synthetic poly-ethylene plastic coating. Whatever this bit of mess is, it must only damage organic cells.”

Norton noticed that the mass of liquid corrosive human was crawling along the floor, spreading out like a droplet of water on a table going through osmosis. She tapped Edwards on the shoulder and pointed to the crawling threat and the two walked out of the room and headed back down into the lab.

*****

The first thing that Edwards ran to once the two made it into the lab were the binders of research notes. “If that keeps spreading,” he said. “It could coat the whole facility and burn up every piece of organic material in here. We’ve worked too hard to understand this much of it so far. There’s too much else left to learn about it and there’s no time to backtrack. Save every piece of record you can. If it’s paper, grab it and keep it safe.”

There were notes all over the lab. Norton grabbed for everything that she could see. From the scribbled covered notebooks to the small post-it notes stuck to the walls, she moved in a fury to grab everything she could. She handed a massive handful of notebooks and loose paper to Edwards, who looked at the pile from Norton and looked at everything he had gathered thus far.

“We need to start moving this out,” he said. “There was plenty of floor space left upstairs, and the mass was moving slowly when we came down to the lab. Stay down here and keep collecting everything you can and keep it in a single pile. I’m going to run this stack outside and into my car. It will be safe in there until we can get the rest out.”

Before Norton could get a syllable of objection out from between her lips, Edwards was already out of sight. She darted form one side of the lab to the other, picking up every sheet of paper she could see. She opened drawers, stood on chairs to reach top shelves, scoured every hidden space in the lab for anything. Once she gathered what she believed to be every sheet of paper in the lab, she noticed that Edwards still wasn’t back. She checked the clock on the wall and saw he had been gone for almost an hour.

She walked through the lab’s hallways and found the stairwell that led back up to the main floor. She called out for Edwards with only her voice echoing up the stairwell being her response. She stood still and waited, waited for Edwards to reappear for the next set of paper to carry upstairs. But there was nothing.

Then, a small drip started pouring off the top step. Norton watched it with curiosity. Not sure of what she was looking at, she grabbed a post-it note with a message that read “Call Mom,” and reach up with it to the top step. The paper touched the small drip trickling down and started smoking and hissing.

In a panic, she dropped the paper into the small puddle that was gathering on the next step. The paper burst into flame and was reduced to ash in a second. A heavy section of the mass then toppled over the top step as the corrosive human remains started pouring rapidly over, like a tower made of champagne glasses.

She ran back into the observation room and rummaged through the papers. She tried to read the notes as quickly as she could, trying to prioritize what would be most important to save. But she knew she was running out of time before she would have nowhere she could move to. She threw down all the papers back onto the desk and peeked out into the hallway to see the mass crawling its way down to the observation room.

She looked around for a window, an air vent, anything she could crawl through to get to safety. All there was around her were grey walls and fluorescent lights. She knew the stairs were her only exit, but there was no way she would get through the hallway now. She walked forward and touched her toe lightly to mass and her shoe instantly burned up. She kicked off both shoes and moved back to the observation room.

Standing just beside the doorway was the bio-waste disposal unit. It moved slowly. She never tried to walk up stairs with it before. But the metal armour was coated with the same poly-ethylene plastic to protect it from bacteria growing on it. She would at least be safe in the basement if she couldn’t get up the stairs.

The suit was already open and Norton just had to climb in, secure her limbs, and close the chest plate and helmet. Once secure, she began walking through the mass. Each slow, thudding step dispersed the mass under its heavy foot. The mechanical sounds of each limb moving as she walked along seemed louder than any time she cleaned out the observation room.

She made it to the steps, which were now soaked with corrosive human remains. The liquid poured along like a never ending fountain. She lifted her foot and stepped onto the first step. She could feel the foot slipping from under her. She tried to steady herself, but she was quickly losing control. The foot finally slipped out from under her and she fell back in the bio-waste disposal unit and landed directly on her back.

Her body seized up. The pain of the landing shot through her whole body, which refused to move despite any command coming from her brain. She laid flattened, staring at the ceiling through the helmet. She could see the liquid dripping out of the vents and through the fluorescent light fixtures. It dripped slowly down and landed on the helmet’s view screen, clouding Norton’s sight.

The fog from her breath condensed inside of the helmet, leaving it wet and smelling like rotting food. Her limbs began responding her commands and she tried moving the suit to stand back up. Gravity was not on her side as she began feeling like a turtle turned upside down on its shell. She was able to move the mechanical arm and wipe away the accumulating mass clouding her vision. She looked around and noticed on the far side of the lab from the observation room a small window. Small, but just big enough to crawl through.

Unable to get up still, Norton began kicking out her legs and flailing her arms, pushing the suit across the floor towards the window. She grabbed onto walls and kicked at corners, moving the massive metal body across the floor. After some hard pushes, she finally made it to the window.

The walls around the window still had no liquid on it. She knew she pull herself up through the window and pivot herself against the wall to get out of the facility. But she had to get up to reach the window first.

She opened the chest plate and helmet to the suit. She pushed one of the doors to the chest plate as far open as the hinges would allow, then pushed it further to pop the hinge and let the door swing from the other side. She stood up with her feet inside the suit where he back usually is and stepped out onto the open door and pushed herself up the wall and through the window.

Once outside, she walked directly to where Edward’s car is usually parked. There was no sign of Edwards or his car anywhere. All there was in the parking spot where his car usually is was a single piece of paper. An observation that she wrote during 03198’s brief time as a subject. She didn’t even remember scribbling down “this is hopeless” on the paper, but it’s how she felt while watching 03198.

She looked back to the facility and saw the liquid seeping through the doors. It crawled along the concrete and into the grassy area. Smoke billowed up to the sky and the sound of its hiss was louder than the traffic on the nearby highway.

She watched the grass burn and pictured what it would do to the trees, forests, jungles, how it would spread all over, burning up every piece of organic material on the planet. She wondered if Europa was once a forest moon, full of life and growth and potential. Until someone drank the water.