By Accident

Author: David P Rogers

They met in the coffee shop by accident, which in itself was odd. Neither of them ever did anything unplanned. Or so Fayt thought. But even Mort had to take an occasional break, and neither of them was omniscient. They got coffee and sat by the window.

“You changed the spelling of your name,” he noted, looking at the name tag pinned to her tunic.

“I like F-A-Y-T,” she said, pronouncing the letters individually. “Seems pretentious, I know, but few choices make a difference in the outcome of things, big-picture-wise, so I figure you have your fun where you can.”

“Are you kidding?” Mort said. “You should see the people I have to deal with. Smokers with cancer and heart attacks. Drunks crashing into trees, driving off bridges. People who get stoned and play with firearms. Choices matter.”

“I do see those people.” Fayt said, tapping her name tag. “I see everybody. Did you forget? And I never said choices don’t matter. I said they don’t all change the big picture. I pay attention to fate-of-the-world choices, and I veto them, if necessary. Most of them, anyway. A few get by me. But the smokers–how many trivial decisions do they make, just on the day they die? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand? Toast or fruit. Brown shoes or black. Subway or bus. No difference. Not my concern what they do about the little stuff. I could intervene–it’s my job and my right, but I figure, let them have their fun. Either way, you’ll know where to find them when the time comes, right?”

Mort sipped and nodded. “I always do.” He paused. “I’m afraid I have bad news,” he went on. “Your department is being downsized.” An eavesdropper might have thought he said it abruptly, almost rudely. He’d been in business long enough to know there was no mercy in dragging things out.

Fayt sighed. “This little meeting was no accident, was it?

“I’m afraid not.”

“How many am I losing?”

“This time, it’s your whole department.”

“But who will guide the big decisions? The ones that have to come out a certain way in order for everything else to fall in line?”

“Higher echelons have decided to give randomness a chance. Anyway, let’s face it–you’ve been understaffed since before the Renaissance. The Protestant Reformation, humans figuring out they’re not the center of the universe, the invention of microchips and digital electronic computers, space travel–all of those came way sooner than they were supposed to.”

“Which would never have happened if my budgeting and staffing requests had been met.” Fayt added another packet of sugar to her coffee and stirred. “Yet the world continues to turn.”

“Precisely. The world spins on. That fact is the premise for some of the higher-ups to argue you are not needed at all. Humans can do well or badly without so much input from outside.” Mort caught the flash in her eye and hastily added, “I don’t agree. But, like you, I follow orders. Nobody up there cares what I say. Or think. Not as long as I do my job.”

“Your job–what about my job?” She stared at him, noted the unblinking blue-green eyes, and shifted her gaze out the window. Traffic and pedestrians went blissfully about their busy little lives, as if each were indispensable. “Oh,” she said at last. “Right. Well, I do appreciate a nice bit of irony.”

Mort nodded. “A couple of centuries ago, you’d have seen it coming and made sure to be on the other side of the planet right now.”

“Maybe I am slowing down. Remember Julius Caesar, and Napoleon’s return from exile, and the Kennedy boys? We danced our way through those, you and I. It was a perfect waltz.”

“Yep. The coordination was precise, down to the second. Nobody on either of our teams missed a beat.”

“Just . . . make it fast, okay? For old time’s sake?”

Mort nodded. He owed that much to his oldest friend.

The Prospect

Author: Alzo David-West

“I’m outta the surveyor, Sungod.”

“Wazzit like down there, Starman?”

“The place’s green, all ’round, like a forest a’ leaf towers. There’s this noise, too. It ain’t animals. Zero showed up on my scans. It’s jus’ plants everywhere. The noise’s comin’ from the leaves. They’re hummin’.”

“How come?”

“Not sure. When I landed, the place wuz silent. As soon as I got outta the surveyor, the hummin’ started, an’ now, it’s a crescendo. I can feel the sound waves thru my suit.”

“Ya in danger?”

“Not as far as I can tell. I guess the noise’s some kinda stress response.”

“No motion or movement?”

“Nothin’. Jus’ the swayin’ from the wind. … Wait a sec. Somethin’ moved.”

“Howzit look?”

“Can’t tell. Can’t make it out. It’s green like everythin’ else.”

“Ya sure it ain’t th’ air?”

“Nah, nah. It’s movin’ ‘gainst it.—Holy spit!”

“Wha’ happened?”

“There’s more!—they’re comin’ all over the place, fallin’ from the leaves!—like spiders an’ starfish!—but they ain’t!—they ain’t animals!—they’re animate plants!—Geezus!—this geoid wuz ‘posed ta be uninhabited!—git me outta here, man!—git me outta here now!”

“Activate yer thermion flares, Starman! Activate yer thermion flares!”

“Can’t!—can’t!—they’re all over me!—holdin’ me down!—spit!—they’re wrappin’ ’round my body!—AAAARRRGH!!—my ribs!—can’t breathe!—can’t breathe—can’t ~~~~~~~~~~

***

“We lost contact, Sungod. It’s jus’ static.”

“Wha’s goin’ on down there, Stingray? Gimme visuals from the surveyor cameras.”

“Too much field in’erference, jus’ like when he landed.”

“Any life signs on Starman?”

“None. He’s gone.”

“Awright then, Stingray. Git it ready.”

“Ya sure ’bout that, Sungod? Howzabout we call SKY first ’bout Starman?”

“No time. ‘Sides, the private contract said risk ta life came with th’ expeditions. The planet’s resource rich. We got competitors also. An’ we gotta clear a patch fer the main landers.”

“Okay. … It’s set.”

“On my mark, Stingray. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1—launch it!”

***

An object reminiscent of a smooth, silvered newborn emerged from a basal chamber of one of the two orbital vessels transiting Parudeesa-5731. Swiftly descending like a stoic, flaring comet through the atmospheric layers of the extrasolar jewel, the bomb made landfall. Then, a point of light flashed fluorescently at the green hypocenter, growing and growing, rapidly expanding for thousands and thousands of meters around, upward, and downward, in a symmetrically even radius, atomizing and quantumizing everything within its range, passing it all from being into nothingness. And after three minutes at the end of eternity, the glowing chromium light contracted, ebbing back toward the center, and finally faded away.

***

“Tha’s some mighty stuff, Sungod.”

“Got the job done, Stingray. Starman got a VR self on file?”

“Yeah.”

“Good. SKY’ll send a copy in memoriam ta his fam’ back home. Meantime, howza prospect lookin’?”

“It’s all shimmerin’. A hun’red-thousand meters a’ strata cleared away. The lithosphere’s solid diamond. Wha’bout th’ animate flora beyond th’ upper perimeter, Sungod? They gotta be th’ apex lifeform down there.”

“I’ll sen’ a report ’bout the diamonds an’ git more silver tickers. We’ll bomb the green spit outta ’em, an’ we’ll be as rich as fudge.”

The Wait

Author: Michael Cavalli

The coffee was already on. They could hear the pot gurgling, could smell the process. His lips were curled slightly inward, hers were pursed as they waited. A dismal stillness emanated from them both.
White sheet pulled up nearly to his chest, he lay back with his neck pressed against the headboard of the queen-size bed. One hand rested on his stomach. The other softly stroked the stubble on his face. She sat at the foot of the bed in a robe the color of dark crimson with her legs crossed, and her arms.
It was dawn. Yellow light broke through the windows and illuminated the white décor of the high-rise suite. Outside in the world, the city was not waking, it had never slept.
The woman looked around at the pristine room. The carpet matched the ivory walls; even the countertops of the kitchenette shone with the color of new snow, bright white with a silver tinge. No object was out of place. Nothing was disturbed. She inhaled deeply and sighed, and her face darkened almost imperceptibly.
“Helen,” he said.
She turned and their eyes met and she reached out a hand, but pulled it back quickly and curled a troop of loose hanging hairs behind her ear. He cleared his throat. When she glanced up at the clock he knew what she was thinking but there was nothing to be said about it. He just lay there looking at her, taking in the chromatic contrast of her robe against the milky bedspread.
A little while later Helen rose and stepped quietly across the carpet to the tile. She pulled from the cabinet two small teacups and filled them with coffee. As she did it she saw that her husband took no notice of her now, immersed in his thoughts.
“Here,” she whispered a moment later, and he took the cup in his hands.
Sitting up, he turned to look out the window, sipping the steaming dark substance and catching a glimpse of a black dot flitting by. In the distance, more of them poured out of the undulating hole near the clouds: countless mechanized troopers conscious only of their mission. He took another sip, then one more, and started to fidget his foot. He looked at Helen. She was staring mutely at the coffee in her cup.
“The door’s locked?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
He looked out the window again. Several blocks away was the skyscraper with the big television on it. A message scrolled across the screen in multiple languages ordering people to stay inside. Empty vehicles littered the streets, even the bridge, and the river was tinted red with blood left over from last night’s massacre. The sidewalks, alleys and byways were filled with invaders going from building to building. There wasn’t much time left. There was nowhere to run.
So they waited.

The Stoker of Disdain

Author: Gus Doiron

I lift a shovelful from the conveyor belt and heave it into the furnace. Same as the one before, and will be after. I spill nothing on the dirt floor.
There, it is much harder to scoop and my burden has time to build up. The belt, loose and drooping on its squeaking rollers, moves slowly, but never stops.
Regardless, I don’t over work myself. I have learned the more I do, the more They’ll give me.
There is no ventilation in here and I am almost naked. My white underwear is tattered and worn to the point of being see through. On my feet are work boots, three sizes too big. One of the boots has no laces and they belonged to the worker before me. According to her scribblings on the wall, she was a giantess from New Guinea named Matariki.
Full of sweat, I wear nothing else.
As a result of having no gloves, my hands have formed large callouses and are thick and scarred.
This job was tough at first, incinerating the broken dreams and empty promises of the world. The ones from the children are the hardest and burn the hottest, but not even they bother me anymore. In the end, everything goes in the furnace. All I smell is sulphur.
Some days I think I am fueling a macabre machine, its belly lined with hell and brimstone. In better times I feel I may be doing a service, ridding the earth of its never-ending supply of heartache. My greatest moments of clarity tell me the term ‘day’ is misleading as I see no sunlight or night-time. Only a large dark room, partially lit with flickering shadows from the sadness I burn.
If ever granted a wish, it would be to not know the name and location of every person whose failed hopes I throw into the furnace. Occasionally it is somebody I know-knew-and I feel guilty sharing their secret.
I wonder if there are other people like me, with jobs like I have. One thing is certain, things are busier now than when I started. All the failed careers and business ventures, broken homes and missing children. Infidelity and lies are up tenfold.
I met the devil once. He wore jeans and a white long-sleeve button up shirt, walking in with a woman that called Him Fabian. He did not have the red skin and horns on His forehead like books would have us believe, but He was the devil, nonetheless. They were talking productivity and when Fabian looked directly at me I found I could not answer His gaze, even though I wanted to.
The devil did not commend me or even offer a nod for doing a good job, and in some ways that hurt as much as the solitude in which I am confined. But I can’t complain-I got here honestly enough.
There are moments I am fortunate and encounter slight lulls. But there are never any breaks.
Betimes I think back to my old job. A janitor in an arena, a long time ago. I not only had breaks, I had coffee breaks. Coffee with so little milk that people not knowing me would take it for black. In my greatest of times, I even had ginger snap cookies.
When I catch myself reminiscing, I shovel fast to get the memory of coffee breaks out of my mind. For here, there are no ginger snap cookies, no coffee, and no breaks.
There is only the furnace.
I bend and take another scoop.

Editors

Author: Josie Gowler

“Snip, snip,” mutters Clarke.

“That makes a change from ‘guidance system deployed’”, I mutter, gazing down my microscope.

“Sarcasm, Matt? From you?” he replies.

“Breaks the tedium,” I shoot back.

“How can you get bored? We’re doing such exciting work.”

More editing, more clipping. It sounds sexy, but it isn’t: like most lab work it’s ninety-five percent dull. And the incubator shaker has developed an annoying squeak.

“We could gene edit Dave into having a personality.”

“Or politicians into being honest,” I say. Clarke raises an eyebrow. “What?” I respond. “I read the news too, you know.”

“Good. Means you can do that school group from Seattle this afternoon.”

“No, no, no,” I mutter. “No more dodo questions, please.”

“It’s your turn.”

“Fine,” I say, even though I’m pretty sure it isn’t my turn. “You can clear up those petri dishes in the sink before we get a lifeform we weren’t expecting.”

I holochat into the classroom of thirteen year-olds, ready with my spiel. “Hi kids, I’m the one who brings animals back from extinction.” I point my finger upwards and a nice graphic of a cartoon DNA strand jumps out of it.

To be fair, this particular group of children are reasonably engaged. Very little fidgeting. “What about Lonesome George from the Galapagos?” one girl pipes up.

“Yeah, Lonesome George was one of mine. He was the last living specimen so when he died we had to use a host – a similar animal – to bring his species back. I also help when there are just a few breeding pairs left but not enough for what we call a viable community – the gene pool is too narrow to recover on its own but we can fix it.” I pause. “Of course, it’ll be nice to not get into this situation in the first place….”

Smiling at their enthusiasm when I’m talking about splicing recombinant DNA strands, I think there’s hope for them. It doesn’t take a computer to really screw things up, it takes a human in the 20th and 21stcenturies. Thankfully the ones in the 22nd are shaping up to be a lot better so far.

“Why do you care?” asks a grubby-looking boy, scowling at me and poking at a hole in his jeans.

“Because it’s my planet too,” I reply.

After giving the children a brief tour of my work taking in woolly mammoths, Iberian lynx and white rhinos, I say goodbye and return to the lab. I blink hard to clear my vision and the benches and equipment snap back into focus. I gather it’s worse if you have to wear those goggles to holochat.

“How’d it go?” asks Clarke. I groan. No point letting on that I rather enjoy it, otherwise I’ll get stuck with doing all of the school liaison and never get any real work done.

“Big plans tonight?” he asks me as we lock up the lab.

“Very funny. The usual.”

As I settle down into my recharge pod and programme the timer for eight hours, I think that I’m looking forward to not being needed any more.