Ashes to Ashes (Flash Fiction)

Ashes to Ashes

By Alexandra Erin


The dust gets in everything.

Every day, we shovel the dunes away from the sides of the domes, clear the paths between them. We spend a full sixty minutes in the airlock, standing under the suction hoses and beating ourselves with our gloved hands, but still it gets in. It clings to the treads of our boots and hides in the joints of our suits until we enter the habitat, then makes a break for it.

We find it coating the inside of the windows as well as the outside, clinging to the our computer screen and tablets, forming a fuzzy coating on the blades of the ventilator fans. The air tastes of dust. The only time the smell of it isn’t in our noses is when we’re outside, wading through it and breathing canned air.

Minute particles slip through the pores in the air filters until enough of them get together at the inopportune moment and the whole thing clogs. They say the damn things are specially engineered for the environment on Mithras-III. We’re supposed to replace them annually, and they have an extended safety tolerance of two and a half years, but we’ve been through three in the four months I’ve been here.

Mission Command says we have to be more careful in the future, but in the future the dust will still be here. I’m not so sure about us.

The electrical system has started developing faults. One board will short out, and then another. When we take the cover off, there’s the dust. We’ve opened up black box systems that were hermetically sealed back on earth and found the dust has wormed its way in, playing merry hob with delicate microcircuitry. At first it was just messing it up, but the last one we cracked looked like it was being rewired.

Did you know that household dust is mostly organic matter? Jones tells me this at least three times a day. She’s gone a bit strange, which is saying something, considering the situation. Some of it’s mites but most of it’s hair and skin. We live among floating graveyards of our own decaying detritus.

The dust on Mithras-III isn’t organic. It’s more like silt than dust, really. We haven’t discovered any organic compounds in it, or anywhere else on the planet. There’s not enough carbon in the atmosphere or soil to support life, the surveys said, but maybe they should have said organic life. What would be the equivalent of skin flakes and hair bits and mites for silicon based life?

It’ll be a very important discovery, if anyone ever believes us and if the extraction ship reaches us on time.

Yesterday, a window cracked in Habitat B.

The dust got in everywhere.

Meanwhile, in heaven…

Well, folks, Angels of the Meanwhile has had typesetting/formatting issues, rights issues, computer issues, communication issues, and my own personal issues, but it’s very close to being a done thing and there will be an announcement of the actual “street date” soon.

I apologize for the delay, as I did not mean for this “little chapbook” to be a year in the making… I’m sure a more experienced editor could have done this better and faster, and shown better coordination with the talented contributors. For a long time, I’ve let this knowledge paralyze me, certain that I’m not worthy to complete what I foolishly started. Now, I look back on the past year and realize that I myself am now a more experienced editor than I was when I started. I’ve gone from feeling like “I’m never doing anything like this again” to “Well, of course I’m not… because next time I’m doing it right.”

Anyway, thank you for your patience.

Ups and downs.

So, yesterday I wound up crashing pretty hard in the afternoon. Combination of poor sleep the night before (anxiety = insomnia), getting up early to make sure there no rush in getting ready and reporting at the courthouse, continued anxiety, then coming home and having a bit of a disquieting internet interaction while I was trying to unwind. I slept for most of the afternoon, which didn’t make last night’s sleep situation a whole lot better.

Still and all, it wasn’t a bad day, and today’s not a bad one for the slow start.

In Jurious Conduct

Okay, so today was jury orientation. I had some trepidation about this… I was 98% sure that I would be just another number and a face in the crowd, but it’s the 2% that I always have to worry about. Of course I don’t know that it’s actually 2%, but that’s part of what’s worrying about it.

The short version is that it went well. My appearance was not challenged and my identity not questioned. We were assured that the court does not ever refer to jurors by anything other than our numbers (I had assumed this would be the case, but when I Googled it before I found that different jurisdictions do this to differing degrees). I was not the only (or the most) visible queer person in the room, of the few hundred people who were receiving their orientation. There was a moment where I was glancing around the room and for faces that look like “family” and I saw a person doing the same thing, and stopping on me.

Jack (who was waiting outside on a bench) later described the same person as having excitedly told her partner “I’m not the only lesbian there!” At that point, there weren’t a lot of other people she could have meant. It’s not quite accurate, but it’s always nice to be clocked as queer without necessarily being clocked as trans.

I do have to go back in later in the week for my first day of actual service, which could be over very quickly or last all day. It’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility it could last more than a day, but that seems unlikely.

Regularly scheduled something something.

As part of my attempts to manage my communications better, I’m going to be using the schedule post function more often. For instance, my post about jury duty was written write after the one about boundaries and Tales of MU, because I wanted to get it out but I didn’t want to detract from the message of the two posts by having them right on top of each other.

I’ve just scheduled a post for tomorrow morning, too… a bit of what you might call bonus content made possible by CritterDB. I’d been wanting to do a semi-regular custom monster feature for a while, but CritterDB really makes the presentation part so easy that it really feels possible. Pretty much five minutes after I saw the thing, I had decided to make “Monday Morning Monsters” a thing on my blog. Then I realized that this Monday I’m going to be sitting in a courthouse, and then I realized I could schedule the post.

So hopefully, tomorrow morning there should be a neat monster post.

Many are called, but few fill out the little questionnaire.

So, the sitcom that is my life decided to give me jury duty while I’m here trying to get things done and figure things out. I report tomorrow. I keep making plans for how I’m going to start things off right tomorrow morning, and then remembering that first thing tomorrow I’m heading for the courthouse.

My understanding is that they’re only going to tie me up for a couple of hours morning tomorrow, for a sort of orientation process, with any actual work days requiring my presence to be announced later. The helpfully threatening little slip of paper I have assures me that the average juror is only called to be present for 5 to 7 days during the month in which we are called to serve, but that doesn’t mean it’s outside the realm of possibility that I’ll be engaged for longer.

It’s also not outside the realm of possibility that my services won’t be needed at all. I am supposed to call in this evening to make sure I’m still on, and even if I’m still scheduled for my orientation, I might not be assigned to a case. I can’t really plan for that, though. I’ve got to assume I’m going to be busy for an indeterminate number of days on an indeterminate schedule.

This isn’t new news for me, as I found out last month. I haven’t talked about this for the same reasons I haven’t talked about much else. I’ve been quite anxious about it, though. Dealing with officialdom while trans is never fun. I have a lot of experience in doing so in an airport, but none in a courthouse.

I think the most likely scenario is that it’s not a big deal, few people notice (this is usually the case) and few say so. I know for most intents and purposes I’ll be a number, not a name, though I do expect my “wallet name” to be called out at least once.

The nightmare scenario, of course, is that my presence and existence are questioned, that my presentation of myself at my most presentable is interpreted as a mockery, and at the worst extreme, I’m subjected to legal repercussions for someone else’s decision to take issue with my life. (That’s ignoring the even worse extreme of being subjected to potentially lethal violence, but that’s always a possibility.)

There are still times when I suck it up and squash the dysphoria long enough to try to present myself as male in order to avoid what seems like a bigger headache. Apart from a high psychological cost, it rarely actually works. The number of times I’ve been challenged trying to use a male-coded restroom is higher than the number of times I’ve been challenged using the correct one. But even if I wanted to try it (and I really don’t think I could), it’s not like I have kept up a closet full of courtroom-appropriate masculine-coded attire. So it’s show up in a nice ensemble from Kohl’s, or old sweat pants and a t-shirt. There’s the risk that someone will think the former is me not taking things seriously, while the latter leaves no doubt.

So I’m just going to have to do what I always do, which is to show up as myself and hope for the best. If things go well, I’ll come back in the afternoon and hopefully have a lot of energy and motivation. If not, the day might end up being a wash, or worse.

Either way, I’ll let you know how it goes, once it’s gone.

Tales of Tales of MU, or, confessions of a thin-skinned writer at the end of her rope.

So, something happened this morning that hasn’t happened in a while.

I woke up thinking about Tales of MU, and not in an “Oh, God, what am I going to do?” sense (and that has happened), but in the sense of thinking about the characters and their lives and what they think and feel and would be doing… so I got up and came to my office and picked up the notebook I had designated the MU-writing one (still empty, as of that moment) and began to write. I filled a page and a bit more pretty quickly with the opening that came to me, and I might do some more today after I finish this post, but it felt good to get it out.

One of the recurring themes in MU is that desire is complicated… that as human beings can want things on different levels, it’s possible to both want something and not want something, and only the mind that’s doing the wanting/not wanting can sort out what to do about that.

My feelings about MU have been like that lately. I’ve wanted to continue the story, wanted to keep it going… but at the same time, I’ve wanted to throw my hands up in the air and be done with it. I talked about how fear of communication had paralyzed me recently. It made it very hard to write TOMU in particular, because while all writing, even fiction, is communication on some level…


This is going to get awkward, but… every author has a few readers who have boundary issues. Writing one’s thoughts out, even one’s thoughts about make-believe people, is a bit of an intimate act. Reading those thoughts is also a bit of an intimate act. But it’s not an intimate act in the way that, say, letting someone into one’s living room is (ooh la la). The writing itself is a sort of filter or interface between the participants. When you read someone’s writing, you’re not seeing the real them. You’re not getting to know them. No matter how sure you are, it’s not true.

There was one day, years ago now, where I was trying to drum up some excitement within myself and the readership, and I did a sort of proto-listicle post on my LJ that had some behind-the-scenes tidbits of Tales of MU. And I had fun writing it, and I hoped people would have fun reading it, and so to keep the fun going I ended by saying that if it was well-received, I’d do it again, with “Six Surprisingly Semi-Autobiographical Elements of Tales of MU”.

Now, I was thinking of things like Mackenzie’s archenemy relationship with stairs, but one well-meaning—and I want to stress that, I’m sure this person meant well—reader commented to beg me not to write this, to “preserve the mystery”, because in their mind, it was obvious to “most readers” that a traumatic event that happened to one character was my own story in fictional disguise, but it would heartbreaking to know it for certain.

Folks, can you imagine what it’s like to be in the middle of a lighthearted, fun little exercise of giving readers a peek behind the curtain and someone comes up to you (virtually, at least) with that?

I’m using that as a representative example of a thing that happens too frequently, and while I wish I could say that I was used to it, it still has a tendency to knock the wind out of my sails. I’ll introduce something to the story and it’ll be going great and then… it happens.

Do you know that every time I write a conflict between Mackenzie and Ian in the story, or introduce a new female love interest for her, my boyfriend Jack gets flooded with messages of sympathy? Because obviously I’m Mackenzie and he’s Ian, and obviously if there’s someone new in Mackenzie’s life that can only mean that I’ve kicked him to the curb, never mind a) fiction and b) polyamory…

I’d love to say this kind of thing doesn’t affect me, but it does. Not at first, not in small doses, but no matter how good a duck’s back is it at whisking away the raindrops, it doesn’t do much against a tidal wave. It’s something that every author has to deal with on some level, but when you’re writing the same story day in, day out in such an immediate medium as the internet, there’s not really a break, you know?

I used to write on my Livejournal that writing is an arrogant act, that it takes not just confidence but arrogance to look at a blank sheet of paper and think, “I can do better than that.” Writing is a balancing act, and I don’t mean that in the sense that you have to juggle a lot of responsibilities (I’d call it a juggling act if I meant that), I mean it in the sense that the only way you can get through it is to keep moving, keep looking straight ahead, just keep going straight on until you’re safely on the other side, or you’ll start to wobble and then you’ll fall and it’ll be over.

But when readers are contacting me (and worse, people in my life) with their “observations” about what my writing means about my real life, I wind up doing the worst thing a high-wire artist can do, which is looking down. I second-guess myself. I stop being able to write a plot line without thinking about the implications, not the consequences for the story but whether it’s going to make my life and Jack’s life and our life together difficult, and who else it might reflect on, and what are people going to take away from this about me…

I don’t want to change the story in response to such silly externalities, but… I’m only human. Sometimes I pull away from a story because of it and then I have nowhere else to go with it. Sometimes I try to power through with what I had planned but the magic is gone, it’s no longer this exciting thing that’s coming together naturally but this hateful, horrid slog.

You know what happened to “updates resume January 4th”?

I had this plan where I was going to spend some time writing to get ahead before I updated, right? If you read my blog, you know the plan. The plan was like this: I would alternate time “on” and time “off”, spending weeks at a time writing stories until I was at least four weeks’ ahead, and then take that time “off” to work on other things.

And the plan was happening less orderly than I’d wanted/expected, but it was happening. I was getting ahead. I was stringing together a plot line that I could sustain, that would carry me through. It took me until the end of my planned “on” session to actually get anywhere, but once I did, once the logjam cleared up and I had traction and I was moving, I was ready to keep moving…

And then I posted the first new chapter in months, the only chapter so far in 2016, and I got a reader query, “Does this mean no more Ian?”

Because the first new chapter had Nicki in it, I guess?

And to be fair, the query didn’t mention any intersection of real life and fantasy, and the reader might not have meant for there to be any. But it deflated me. It was like a punch in the gut. I let the stories that were growing in my head wither on the vine, and vacillated between coming up with a story that would be untouchable, bulletproof, and feeling like the whole thing was not worth bothering with anymore.

Now, things have been difficult for me in a lot of different ways lately, and this is not the only issue that’s been affecting my work. But it’s been compounding all the other ones. Barring that one post on Tumblr I made about Superman singing to Batman, Tales of MU is the greatest success of my career as a writer. Financially, it’s the top. Finding myself unable to continue it makes me feel like a fraud and a failure overall, which makes it hard to get up the gumption to accomplish anything, which just contributes to the cycle of perceived failure.

And can you imagine what it’s like to try to communicate within a relationship when you’ve got this weight of expectation from strangers who assume your imaginary story about ~19-year-olds finding ~*love*~ in college is reflective of your adult relationships as late 20 and 30 somethings? It makes everything that much harder, and then when we do have an issue that needs to be worked out, it just makes writing anything having to do with Mackenzie or Ian radioactive, because now the second-guessing is getting into third-guessing and fourth-guessing… what if it does creep in? What if Jack starts to believe it?

Please take this blog post as one part just me identifying and articulating a problem I have not yet articulated, just more of me thinking out loud very quietly, as I do here.

And please take it as one part further explanation for why things have been so very bad on the updates front lately.

But please, please, please, also take it as a plea: knock this shit out. Yes, I broke the swear embargo. Whatever theories you all want to have in your own private heads and private spaces, knock yourselves out. But when it comes to me, my space, my people, my life? Knock the shit out. Quit leaving your theorizing in my inboxes, in those of my friends and lovers, in the comment section of my website. I don’t read the comments on Tales of MU, but the reality of the modern internet is that someone has to moderate them or else let them be abandoned to the porn and pill bots, which means Jack sees them.

And this isn’t just about the personal stuff. Do you folks know what my inbox looks like when I start a new project? “So I guess it looks like you’re sick of Tales of MU.” Then I update MU. “So I guess you’re not sticking with [new thing] after all.”

Every time I start updating at a regular-ish time, five minutes after that time I get the first trickle of “I guess there’s no story this week” and “So we’re back to no updates, huh?”, and guess what that does to my drive to keep up a consistent schedule? Consistency is never rewarded except with demands for more consistency.

This kind of thing, it has got to stop. I have got to stop being afraid of it, but listen, as long as we’re being completely honest with each other (and we are being honest, aren’t we?), when I’m afraid of a thing, only some of that fear is fear of what will happen. Some of it… often a lot of it… is fear of what I’ll do. I used to be a very angry person. I used to get worked up utterly out of proportion over every little thing. I used to be not very nice. And part of how I changed that—to the extent that I have, everything is a work in progress—is by learning to simply not respond to things.

So if I stop being afraid of what we might term readers’ “invasive reactions”, I’m likely to get angry about them instead.

And that’s not going to be fun for anyone.

I’m going to tie this off by laying out the law. I know readers have asked (mostly through Jack) for me to be more communicative through the Tales of MU website, to post more updates about what I’m doing there and so on.


Just no.

We tried that, it didn’t work.

I don’t want to say “you blew it,” because I’m not saying that I’ve been perfect… this post is as much a catalogue of my own flaws as anyone else’s. From here on out, Tales of MU is where I post Tales of MU stories, this blog is where I talk about what’s going on. I’m not going to cross those streams again. There is a wall a thousand feet tall made out of force fields and fire and patrolled by little yappy dragons that spit out giant fire-breathing ones when they see intruders. I will continue to communicate more (more frequently, more candidly) here, but I’m not doing it over there. That space is going to be reserved for fiction until I’m sure that each and every person who’s reading it knows the difference.

So, all of this is to say: I’m writing Tales of MU again.

In terms of practical announcements, that’s it.

I set no deadline.

I announce no schedule.

I make no promise.

I make no pledge.

Every time I hit a stumbling block and start to un-stumble myself, it seems like there’s someone there to ask me when I’m going to “get serious” about things. This is not the most invasive thing I get asked, though it’s just as fallacious as trying to figure out what’s going on in an author’s love life by the ups and downs and ins and outs of her fictional characters. You can’t tell how serious someone is about something by how well they’re doing at a thing.

Trust me when I say that I’m serious now. Trust me or don’t when I say I’ve been serious about it the whole time I’ve been not writing and not updating it, too. Seriousness only gets you so far. I’m more serious now, if only because I’ve shoveled out a lot of baggage that was clogging the seriousness pipeline .

Right now, I’m so serious that I’m resolving to just write the damn story I want to write and not care what anyone thinks about it, or if anyone thinks anything about it. That’s the way it was in the beginning. I used to tell people who had little suggestions for making it more palatable to a mass audience that I’m writing the story I want to write, and if you want to read that story, you can. That was the deal in the beginning. That’s the deal now.

And if you want to read that story, then you only need to do three things:

  1. Get out of my way while I write it.
  2. Stay out of my way while you read it.

(Optional step 3: Give me your money, so I can keep doing it.)

Great resource for 5E DMs

So, a redditor going by fest- has created a really nifty tool for quickly threshing out monsters for 5th Edition, called CritterDB. It won instant points with me for using “critter” as a generic reference for what 5E calls “creatures”, since that’s one of my own habits.

Some caveats:

  • You cannot (yet) set an arbitrary size for the hit die; it will always use the default hit die size for the creature’s size class. You might have to hit “save and continue” after changing the critter size to update the hit dice.
  • It treats senses, vulnerabilities, etc., as individual items, not raw text, so you have to hit enter after typing, say, Darkvision 60′ in order to get it to save the value.
  • The “specific value” field for saving throw/skill bonuses is currently ignored if you try to set it to 0, since this registers the same as not having any value set.
  • It has no CR calculation/estimation capabilities, so you’ll still have to do that yourself according to the table on page 274 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

It does have some neat features, though. There’s a macro for quickly generating correctly formatted attacks, it auto-generates a stat block for the critter, will include the necessary traits if you specify a specific humanoid race, and you can copy a stat block you’ve already created. This latter feature is hugely useful for making variant monsters; just enter a generic critter from the SRD like “kobold” or “zombie” or “commoner” into your bestiary and then make and edit copies as needed and you can have fast zombies, strong zombies, legless zombies, etc. It also lets you create multiple bestiaries (folders) for organizational purposes.

While testing it out, I went ahead and made a stat block for the first custom monster I threw at my players in 5E, the Death Shrieker:

death shrieker

The Amazing Rubberband of Personal Progress

So, a perfect example of how progress is not strictly linear: Wednesday was a textbook good day. I was writing, I was blogging, I was posting. If you compare my behavior to what I said about my fear of communication, it would seem like I was “better” as in the problem was fixed, not just doing better.

I woke up Thursday ready to do it all over again, and… didn’t. Couldn’t. Sat staring at the screen. Had ideas, but no means to express them.

Today I woke up full of trepidation about how yesterday went, but it’s not so bad that I can’t work through it. So I am.

At the same time, this is progress. I tell other people all the time that “better” is a process, not an end result. I’m getting better. Wednesday was a proof that cannot be invalidated by Thursday. It still happened, no matter what happened (or didn’t happen ) the next day.

I used to find this elastic snapping back extremely discouraging. It’s not become a welcome spring breeze, but I now recognize it’s not a failure.