Author : Alicia Cerra Waters

Once a month, someone had to delete the files of the undesirables. It was an easy job; go into the server room, which was illuminated by the light of countless green-glowing network ports, punch in a command, and watch as a neon status bar tracked the progress of the photos, video confessions, the birth certificates and disposal certificates, all being scrubbed out of existence. Usually, the senior data analyst did it, but pale, introverted Stephanie of the bad allergies and dishwater hair hadn’t been in the office for days. At least, Rachel hadn’t seen her.  Another bout of the flu was biting through the city, ravaging the young, the old, and the chronically unhealthy.

Rachel didn’t know if Stephanie had the flu, but that’s what the department manager had implied when Rachel bumped into him in the lounge. She was watching her coffee mug oscillate under the yellow light of the microwave, full of the thick remains of that day’s burnt roast. She had spent the afternoon rocking back and forth in her office chair.  If she leaned back far enough, she could see the green light of the server room reaching towards her from the other end of the hall like floating strands of a spider web.

The department manager came in, grinning jovially at her.  It was never a good sign when he smiled. “I thought I’d find you here,” he said.  “I sent you an email. Urgent business. I was hoping you could assist me with it.” He reached for a chipped Yellowstone National Park mug and filled it with water.

“That’s Stephanie’s,” Rachel said.  She remembered when Stephanie came back from that vacation; the only time Stephanie had ever seemed happy about anything was when she was explaining the photograph of the Emerald Pool.  He turned towards her, and suddenly she wondered why she’d spoken at all.

He widened his grin. “Stephanie won’t mind.”

“Is it the flu?  My grandmother’s sick with it.”

He hummed.  “Yes, poor thing.”

The microwave beeped, and it took a concentrated effort not to jump from surprise. He grinned, watching her.  “Be sure to read your email.” He took a long drink from his mug and paused in the doorway, and she felt his eyes rest on her for another long second before he left.

Rachel’s intestines released the knot that had twisted up while he talked.  She took a breath, then carried the mug back to her cube and angled her chair away from the hall.  In her desk drawer, under a pile of papers, was a smokeless, scentless marijuacodin e-cig.  Technically they were illegal, but everyone in the data department smoked them.  Glancing around, she inhaled deeply from it once, then twice, and allowed herself to rotate her chair back towards her computer, sitting up very straight, as if she were pausing to think about the contents of a spreadsheet when really she was floating through a dim, blissful haze.

Eventually the click of keyboards all around her calmed her senses, and she opened her email.  A well-rehearsed script picked up inside her mind; “You’re safe.  You follow the rules.  Almost all of the rules.  You’re a citizen In Good Standing.  You’re safe.”

She scanned the email he had sent.  “Please delete the files of the undesirables.”  That was all he’d written.  Not even a signature.

She turned her head just right, and a prism of bright green light stretched its tendrils towards her.  She thought about Stephanie in the vacation photos, smiling for a change, standing in front of that dreamlike blur of blue and green and sepia.