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Future's Ending: A Science Fiction Short Story Anthology

Dedicated to Robert Heinlein
Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.

Thanks to:
Lindsay Carlson for inspiring me to write
Josiah Davis for suffering through and editing my first draft
Amanda (Stylus Ink) for proofing
The magic that is coffee

Shakespir Edition

Table of Contents

The First

The Rerun

The Detective

The Bunker Man

A Slight Change

Experiment in Sanity

When You Roll the Dice

Forever Fluffy

Judgement Day

Third Time’s a Charm

Cheaper by the Dozen

The Man Who Never Lived

Awoken

Inherent Vice

The Watchman Waits

The Blessed Bounty

Error 243

Pleasure Island

The Liger’s Son

The Aliens

Personal Jesus

Beta, Am I?

Reality Redux

Stop It, Please

The First

No one knew who the First was. You woke up thinking you were her. Then, you saw someone with the same face and realized that maybe you were second. Quickly, your hopes were dashed when you realized you weren’t even the third, fourth, fifth, or even sixth. It was tough being an unquantifiable number greater than six. You were probably number one thousand six hundred and fifty-one. Some false specificity would make you feel better about the situation, but it’s not like your opinion mattered in this process. But hey, at least you maintained her sense of humor. That never left you. Laughter in the face of absurdity was programmed into your DNA. Your standing assumption was that a society of look-alike clones needed to have some aplomb and moxie to deal with seeing their neuroses on display in a hundred different daily facets.

You had been a trained biologist, a self-taught sociologist, and finally a red card-toting party member. It had been your idea to set up this Potemkin village in this now unclaimed area of far eastern Siberia. This society was located on a very remote island inhabited only by a unique species of mule deer and you (multiplied by a thousand or two, give or take). How great to be the first truly equal society made possible through the advances of an atheistic science that had no problem playing God! The disappointment must have played out on your face. You stare at yourself with a knowing look. Sarcasm and irony were, after all, your favorite armor. You guess we must all feel the same way when we first are born. You stand up and are told to report to orientation.

You count that there are ten of us milling around in the same ugly, pastel hospital gowns. Your group has been ushered into a faded, decaying, post-soviet conference room. Before you have any real chance to start a conversation with your compatriots, what appears to be the ninety-year-old version of you opens the door slowly and makes her way across the floor, moving at the speed of a creeping lichen. In her hand, she carries a jar filled with opaque, white ping pong balls. Needless to say, it was not a comfortable feeling to see your own future, especially in a horribly ugly brown cashmere sweater. She finally reaches the podium after an uncomfortably long delay, cracks her knuckles, and begins.

“Jane(s), it has been two hundred years since we began our city, although for you it feels like you just arrived. As proof of this, you can see the ravages of decades on our bodies. Even we are not immune to the disadvantages of growing old. You will now draw lots to determine your jobs. As you know, we started this city so we could all live in equality and mutual happiness. We know you will work your hardest for our mutual happiness. Now please come forward.”

You join the rest of you in an orderly line. You each take a turn and draw out a ball. Old Jane, as you decide to call her, then dunks each ball into a solution that changes color to a vibrant red or green. No one in front of you utters an expression of joy or dislike as they stick their fingers into the visibly ancient piece of honored plastic Tupperware. Of course, none of you has an idea what the color means anyway, so that might be the reason for the nonchalant attitude. Your hand reaches in to pull out the future, and that future was black. You step out of line and let fate run its course.

Old Jane continues, “Now that you have been given your work duties, you will be living in shared bunks with the rest of your comrades in the same professional group. You will report to mandatory weekly orientation with first instruction tomorrow at city hall. Please go pick up a backpack labeled with your color against the wall. It will have the supplies you need to get started in your new lives. You should choose a different name for yourself.” Old Jane started to smirk, “There are too many of us around for everyone to be called Jane.”

Old Jane is right. Maybe it is time for you to think of yourself as an individual. You are not everyone, and everyone is not you. You finally wake from your daze and become unique. You no longer exists, as I make my way towards the exit of the room and walk out onto the street.

It was a brisk, but sunny day, not unbearably cold, but with enough hints of winter to know it was in the air. I stopped the first woman I saw, a slightly pudgier middle-aged version of myself wearing a red jumper.

“Where are the black barracks?”

“They are a mile north of here and then about a quarter mile east. You won’t be able to miss them. By the way, it’s September 13th.”

“Sorry. I don’t follow?”

“Happy birthday. Everyone needs to know their birthday.” She smiled at me.

“Thanks.” I smiled back.

I began my march to my new home. I surveyed the scene around me. You had built this village. The grey, somewhat crumbly-looking walls, the poorly labeled signs outside of the storefront, and the egalitarian fashion sense, all screaming drab but functional, completely and utterly you. You had been successful in achieving your dreams. It was now time to live them. Maybe things wouldn’t be so bad here after all.

Ten minutes later, I smelled my new abode. I guess black was for sanitation. My new duty would clearly be extremely glamorous. At least you had made the decision not to force the garbage ladies to wear white. Your uniform would be both slimming and not as noticeably dirty, two major pluses. The building, from the outside, was made of a mixture of plywood and corrugated steel. I knocked three times. No one answered. I turned the doorknob, discovering it to be open, and walked inside. The interior room had twenty bunks, ten on each side, along with a communal shower and bathroom. At the base of each bunk there was a chest, which held the meager belongings of that bed’s occupant. I was tempted to open some of them, since after all we were sisters, but that didn’t seem right. I could snoop another time. Being born was a tough business, and I was tired. I lay down in the nearest open bed, promising myself that I would sleep only for a little while. I woke up when the door slammed shut.

“Who do we have here?” asked a version of myself with a mohawk covered in a mixture of dirt and grease.

“Looks like some fresh meat out of the freezer,” responded another equally unclean you behind her. This version of yourself had a shaved head and numerous intricate tattoos, including a downed deer with copious amounts of blood flowing from an arrow in its heart. Bringing up the rear was a buffed-out woman who promptly shut the door and glared at you. I was at a loss of what to do seeing so many different versions of myself standing in front of me. I decided the polite thing to do was to introduce myself.

“Hi. I’m Jane.”

“It looks like this version is a joker. Hi Jane! Welcome to Utopia. I go by Chelsea on account of my hair. The one with the shaved head over there is Eve. Our leader here goes by Boss since she is in charge. She is a just a tiny bit of a dyke.”

Boss punched her in the shoulder. “Just kidding. She is a total dyke.”

“I see. I guess I should choose a name.”

Boss responded next.

“That’s not how it works. You have to earn one here. You can stay generic, plain, simple Jane for now. Dinner is in twenty minutes, and attendance is mandatory so you will be joining us. Normally, we have communal supper club here once a month to make sure you remember your place. However, in celebration of the new arrivals, we get an added bonus of attending several extra times during your education period. You can wash up after we are done with the facilities, to get the birthing agent off your skin. That backpack you are carrying should have some basic toiletries and two uniforms to wear. One is for daily work, and the other is for evening relaxation. I’ll give you the rest of the details of your life later.” Boss left the room and made her way to change. She was definitely not the welcoming type.

“Is she always like that, Eve?”

“Only on the good days.” Eve followed her into the shower.

“Don’t worry. You will figure things out soon enough. We all had to at one point. Just don’t be too disappointed with what you see. This is your new life, and it is the only one you are going to live,” Chelsea added.

After showering, I definitely felt like a new woman, an odd sentiment for a twelve-hour-old. We followed Boss out the door and began our trip back to the village. We stopped at the city hall, one of the only original buildings still left on the island, and entered it. Within it, there was a small jail, office space, and a large dining hall with tables laid out and filled with my contemporaries in rows. A multi-shaded banner hung from the ceiling stating, “Through equality, we find strength.” Funny, I never thought I would be the kind of girl to put trite slogans on display. Every person sat amongst her own color with no intermixing. Did each stick to their own out of choice or requirement? I had many questions at this point. There appeared to be groups of five different hues. We got in line after everyone had been served, collecting the slop that was for dinner. It was an indecipherable cacophony of mushy pastes that could hardly be described as food. I assumed it must be nutritious, at least. We made our way to the very end of the cafeteria. I didn’t have much of an appetite, but it seemed like I was the only one with that problem. I sat down between Eve and Chelsea to avoid antagonizing Boss, who still had a look of displeasure on her face whenever our eyes met. There were two women dressed in white sitting in the front of the room. Looking closer, it appeared to be old Jane and a much younger but more stern-looking version of herself. She stood up, and the room fell silent.

Chelsea grunted, “Our fearless, daughter-of-a-bitch leader.”

“We have some new members who have joined us today. Will they please stand? Let us all welcome them to the collective.”

I stood up and was met with a round of applause. I did some quick math now that everyone was seated. There appeared to be approximately five hundred and sixty people at this dinner. What was shocking to me as I surveyed the crowd was how different they all looked in spite of our common genetic stock. The faces were all familiar, but beyond that, these ladies shared little else amongst themselves. There were even some children present, which was not something I had originally envisioned. Maybe this experiment had finally determined it was really nurture, not nature.

“As you all know, harmony is extremely important for the survival of this village. I need not remind all of you to assist them in finding their proper place in society. Praise to the First.”

I turned to Eve. “What does she mean by that?”

“You’ll find out tomorrow,” whispered Eve. That seemed unduly foreboding, especially coming from myself. However, were all these women really me, or was I them? At what point did our experiences diverge to make us wholly unique individuals? It was all so very confusing. Boss, who had apparently been listening to our conversation, stood up and walked behind me. She took her hands and pressed them on my shoulders, roughly pushing me into my seat.

“Things have changed over the last two hundred years since the First came here,” Boss whispered. “Try not to buy into the bullshit too much tomorrow. We know how you can get carried away into an idea. Even I was once like you, ever so briefly. Don’t do anything stupid, or I will make sure you regret it. Now shut up until we leave this place.” After dinner, we made our way back to the bunks. I had a lot of questions, but I decided for my health it would be best for me to ask them another day.

“You can choose any bunk you want except that one,” pointed out Boss.

“And why can’t I sleep on that one?”

“That is none of your business, Jane, and don’t question me when I tell you to do something.”

“Okay, Boss.” I would question her again, but not today. I still had a lot to learn.

The next morning I was awoken by an alarm going off. I checked the time on the old clock hanging above the doorframe. It read 5:30 AM. Apparently it was time to get up. I had never been one for an early start to the day, but first impressions were important, and I didn’t want to seem like a slacker. I had decided to head towards the shower to freshen up when Eve stopped me.

“No point. You are just going to get dirty anyway. By the way, you should probably put on some clothes.”

I realized that I was completely naked. It had been a while since I had slept in a room with other people. My face began to redden from embarrassment, but Eve quickly chimed in.

“No need to be modest. Trust me; I’ve seen your birthday suit before. Now, hurry up and put on your jumper. It is required that you wear it at all times when in public.”

“So how do I get some street clothes around here?”

Eve smiled mischievously. “You need to earn some special privileges. Meet us back here for lunch after your day two orientation.”

“Just think, you now are twice as old as you were yesterday. Don’t waste all that wisdom in one place,” added Chelsea.

I got dressed and made my way back to the village. The state of local affairs did appear a little bit clearer now that a day had passed. Maybe Chelsea was not being one hundred percent ironic in her comment. Within the village there were houses, but only Yellows entered and exited them. Some of them had babies and toddlers in tow, but their faces did not remind me of the one I saw in my youth. Memory, though, was a fickle thing, and I certainly didn’t have any photos of when I was three. There was a large number of Reds moving equipment comprised of mostly construction materials and food. The few shops present did not seem to have a wide variety of goods, but I decided to kill some time by looking around. As I entered, I was greeted by a Blue.

“You must be the new Black. The tank is back there.”

“I was actually interested in the yellow dress over there. Can I try it on?” The Blue started to chuckle. “Do you have any credits?”

“What are those? I thought we shared everything.”

“I think you need to be educated. Come back after your orientation.” I was then shooed out of the building.

Who was this woman to treat me like an idiot? I had multiple college degrees, the same as her. Feeling somewhat consternated by the exchange, I made my way back to the birthing center. Inside, it appeared everyone was already in their seat. All of them were dressed in green or red. I was the only Black. A Yellow was sitting upfront. Everyone was staring at me. It was probably a good idea to fib a little.

“Sorry. I took a wrong turn and got lost on the way here.”

“You’re late. You won’t get docked credits this time, but don’t let it happen again.”

“I won’t.”

“Now that you are all assembled, let me welcome you all to your introductory orientation class. You will have these biweekly for the first six months of your stay here. You all must be confused and scared about what is going on here. That is a normal feeling in an unfamiliar situation like this one. We want to ease your transition into your new life amongst the community we created together. Let’s fill in the gaps from your last memory. As you all remember, after the First came here, she began her dream of building a truly equal society. She and we built this village painstakingly, by hand, and we wrung out a living together through the harsh winters and short summers. We worked and ate together, like you did last night, and lived in tranquility. She, in her wisdom, realized that it was impossible for everyone to work proficiently at every task and decided that we needed to form worker groups that would help grow our prosperity. She assigned five different colors that would coexist in sustainable harmony. The Black, the color of the earth, would gather the nutrients we needed to sustain harvests for years to come. The Green, life springing ever new, would grow the crops that we needed to eat. The Red, color of blood and sweat, would construct and manufacture our buildings and tools. The Blue, symbol of the ocean, would trade for the goods we needed inside and outside our commune. The Yellow, like the sun, would protect and guide the village. After she was done with this, she became the first White, the leader of us all. Through this system, we have survived for the last two hundred years. You have been assigned a great responsibility to continue this way of life. Of course, everyone in this village works. To administer this system, we have a system of credits you receive every week that you can use to purchase essentials beyond food and your group uniforms. If you don’t fulfill your duties, we dock your credits accordingly. We also subtract a room and board charge at a reasonable rate. This makes sure that everyone contributes like they need to. You built this. Welcome to your new life. Praise to the First.”

A Green stood up and started clapping. Everyone followed her and did the same. I was the only one who sat there immobilized. Was I that different from the rest of these wide-eyed idealists? The story seemed to have jogged my memory as I now remembered forming the color groups, but beyond that was a bit of a fog. I guess everyone must have known all this already, given how quickly they had accepted it. We should have been all the same, but clearly that was not the case. I decided it was better not to point that out. The Yellow eyed me warily as I raised my hand. Everyone sat back down.

“That was a great speech, and I am super excited like everyone here. What if we find out that we want to be in another group? How does one go about switching?”

“Switching wouldn’t be fair to others and would cause the system to fail. You received your jobs based on the needs of the village and random chance. I’m sure you will get the same amount of joy we all get from being contributing members of society.”

I decided it was best to shut up at this point.

“If there are no other questions, this afternoon is your first day of work duty. You are dismissed.” I saw where this was going, but it seemed like no one else did. I made my way back to the barracks where I waited for the rest of the group.

“So how did your brainwashing go?” asked Chelsea.

“I definitely felt a one-of-us vibe. Does everyone get the same orientation?”

Eve joined in the conversation, while Boss made her way back to the primitive kitchen, consisting of a hot plate, a small fridge, and a tea kettle.

“It always happens on the second day. That way it reinforces your place in society. We all come out the same, thinking we are the First, and then we remember how we structured things. It’s hard to fight against yourself and your decision to set up this organizational construction.”

“So you all remember what happened to her after she made the different colors?”

“Of course, don’t you? How she decided that one ring should rule them all and all that jazz? You selected yourself as the first White, and here we are today.” Eve rolled her eyes at Chelsea’s description.

“We perform a valuable service like everyone else, and that is all there is to it,” interrupted Boss. “We have fifteen minutes until the next appointment. Hurry up and eat.” Lunch was an unappetizing bowl of cold vegetable gruel. Maybe the paste was considered a luxury compared to this. I followed my sisters out the door and was immediately struck by an unpleasant odor.

“Don’t forget your toolkit,” laughed Chelsea, throwing a shovel that was coated in black muck at me. In front of the barracks was a covered wagon pulled by a sturdy-looking pony. I walked towards the front, but I was stopped by Chelsea. “You are in the back. If you prove yourself useful, you can join the rest of us.” Inside the wagon was the source of the smell—a giant vat filled to the brim with manure. It was clear that it wasn’t only from cows. I held my nose, hoping it would stifle my gag reflex. Apparently I was worth as much as a pile of shit at this point. As we rode, it was explained to me that our job was to collect waste from the septic systems to provide fertilizer for the farms and to do other unsavory maintenance tasks. The first stop was at the animal sheds where I cleaned out thirty-six stalls while Eve, Chelsea, and Boss looked on.

“There you go, Jane. Put your back into it,” encouraged Boss. The other two snickered, especially when I face-planted into an especially ripe patty. My face was dirty and my body ached. I couldn’t stand my own smell. This was not what I signed up for. After being humiliated for a few hours we made our way back through town. I thought I was done for the day until we stopped in front of a row of houses.

“Final stop, you need to service some reported toilet problems.” We were back in the main village. It appeared that we would be entering the homes of some of the Yellows. We knocked on the door of the first one, and a child let us in. It was an unremarkable house, with three bedrooms and a variety of old-world knickknacks. Compared to the barracks, though, the building was a palace. The little girl followed me like a tail while I made my way to where I thought the septic system was. She was probably eight or nine years old. I decided to make some small talk with her.

“Where is the problem, sweetheart?”

“It’s over here. Mama says the pipes are clogged.”

“What’s your name?”

“Mama told me I can’t talk with strangers, especially with anyone who isn’t Yellow.”

“Why is that? We are all the same. Your mama and I are sisters. I’m not a stranger.”

“Then why are you so stinky and dirty? Mama is always clean.”

“I’ve been working in the field. You will look like this too if you end up with my job when you are older.”

“That won’t happen. Mama says that we are special since we live in the village.”

“I see. She must be very smart. How did she get her job?”

“The White chose her. She chooses all the Yellows and other colors, too. Mommy says she makes all the decisions, and she is very lucky to work with her.”

“I see. I won’t talk to you anymore. I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

Well, this wasn’t fair or equitable in the least bit. Why did they get this relative luxury while the rest of us had to live a barren, pseudo-military life in the woods? And what did she mean about the White choosing who got what jobs? I headed to the restroom where I fumbled around with the pipes for a few minutes and managed to unclog them. For my troubles, I was soaked in the stagnant cesspool of waste that had closed them off. Chelsea looked like she was going to make another quip at my expense when I walked back outside. Fortunately, she read the mood telegraphed on my face and didn’t say anything.

“Why do the Yellows have kids and live in houses? I never planned for this.”

“Let’s discuss it later. We can’t talk about it while we are here,” whispered Chelsea. “Focus on getting your work done so we can go home.” I guess this was a sensitive subject. We hit a few more houses, and I tried to work as quickly as humanly possible to end that horrendous day.

“Okay. Last one.” It was the store from earlier this morning. I looked and smelled like a four-day-old dead mule. “I’m not going in there.” It was too much.

“Looks like the princess has had her fill for the day,” Boss laughed. “You were doing so well until now.” The store owner saw us loitering and walked outside.

“Ah. It looks like you came back.” That Cheshire smile of hers was enough to make me cry. I couldn’t take it anymore. My eyes started to tear up, but I pulled myself together after glancing behind me at Boss. I could handle one more indignity. I didn’t want to give her the pleasure of seeing me give up.

“Yes. I am back. What is the problem again?”

“I need my septic tank emptied.” I started to enter through the front door, but she blocked me.

“You can go around back. I can’t have my merchandise and clean floor tainted by you.” I felt the last bit of resistance beaten out of my body as I turned around to stare at the shopkeeper’s mocking face. I looked down at the ground and began the trudge around the building when Boss stopped me.

“Eve, go take care of the problem.” Boss moved on over to me and asked, “What is her problem?”

“I came to this store earlier and wanted to buy that dress, but I didn’t have any credits.”

“I see. Let me resolve this.” Boss walked over to the Blue.

“My credit number is 2341. I’d like to buy that yellow dress over there.”

“That is two thousand credits. Can you really afford that?”

“Just give me the damn dress, honey.” The Blue grimaced and walked over to check her records. “It appears that you have enough.”

“Why don’t you go and try it on?” asked Boss. I marched right in, leaving behind imprints wherever I stomped. I stripped off my overalls and put on the dress. It fit nicely, although it was now soiled, along with the Blue’s floor, which was in complete disarray.

Eve came back and announced, “That looks great on you.”

Boss then continued.

“Looks like everything has been fixed. We will take our leave. Why don’t you wear that out?” We loaded ourselves back on our wagon, and I sat in the back.

“You can sit up front with us. You don’t seem like much of a Jane to me,” noted Chelsea thoughtfully. “You got Boss to spend three months’ credits on you. I guess you could be considered our star employee. She has never bought me anything, and I’ve been worker of the month at least eight times.” I hadn’t realized it was that much money. I started to mumble my thanks, but Boss shut me up quickly.

“It was my money to spend as I wanted to, Star. It’s not like I have anything I use it for. That woman just needed to be put in her place.”

Once we made it back to our home, I decided it was safe to inquire again about my earlier question to Chelsea.

“You mind explaining to me what is going on now?”

“I think you can figure it out yourself.” It was true that I already seemed to know most of the relevant facts except for one.

“If they can make children now, why create fully formed versions of us?”

Chelsea shrugged. “They want their kids to have someone to serve them in the future. We come with prepackaged skills and knowledge. Most of us are docile except for the rejects who end up here.”

“What do you mean? That kid mentioned that the White made the job selections, but I got told our color was based entirely on luck. Was that a lie?”

“You didn’t really think you got assigned here by random, did you? Don’t be naïve. That first day is rigged. You probably didn’t notice how long the ball was held under the solution. It changes color depending on how many seconds it is suspended. I found that out since I was bored during my birthing day and decided to count the seconds each ball sat in the solution. You can’t see the color change because the ball is palmed the entire time it is in there. If it was truly completely random, you would have a fair chance at any color. Your choices are already limited based on what backpacks are prepared. It’s all one big setup.” I hadn’t really thought of that, but it did make sense.

Eve added, “Cloning is not without its imperfections. You add a bit more testosterone, apply the wrong electrical currents for retention of certain memories, or modify the embryonic temperature in the vat, you end up with a slightly different person. Those small chemical differences make all the difference in a personality or someone’s experiences. A little push in brain chemistry results in a punk, a lesbian, or a girl with premature balding.”

Were these really all aspects of me that I had never seen or considered? The question of nature vs. nurture was being solved on this island on a massive scale. I had an unexpected flashback, remembering a youth that was never really mine to begin with, that was a prelude to all of these versions of me that sat collected around me.

Chelsea patted me on the back. “Try not to think about it too hard. Your mind might get blown, Star.” How did I screw up this society so much? This is not what I had in mind when I started this colony, but I couldn’t remember what had happened beyond my starting the Colored groups. “Let’s go eat, princess.”

Dinner passed uneventfully, except for us getting served last again. I had decided it wasn’t my place to start any trouble as I needed help to locate the truth behind this society. Sticking your thumb out too early would definitely get it crushed. The second week came quickly, and I made my way back to orientation. There was a new person leading it.

“I hope you had a productive week adjusting,” smiled the Yellow. All the Reds and Greens smiled back. I went with the flow and also faked some enthusiasm.

“You will receive your first credits after this meeting. Credits, as you now know, are for all the extras we don’t need for day-to-day life in our community but still want. Sharing everything and equality is the foundation of everything we do, but the First in her wisdom realized we needed to separate into classes to allow for important tasks to be done. Minute inherent differences need to be allowed to address the increased amount of challenging work different groups must do. Without the Yellow’s planning and administration and the Blue’s skills at trading, we would not have the food and comforts of the labor we all enjoy. No longer does anyone need to suffer the hunger and cold of an indifferent world. We take care of our own here. Please come up and collect your accounts. We have already subtracted your food and room costs. Praise to the First.”

I stepped up and received my number. The number of credits assigned to it was pathetically low. I didn’t quite understand why everyone else sat there so docilely, accepting everything they were told. Were we not all cut from the same revolutionary cloth? However, if mistakes could be made in genetic engineering, changing a person almost completely, couldn’t additions also be made? Like activating a gene for placidity? Advances in technology were inevitable over time, and in that respect I was an ancient dinosaur, hundreds of years behind the current era. Who knew what improvements and new knowledge had been introduced since I had been born? It wasn’t a stretch to turn a Type A into a compliant Type B or worse. I hurried back to tell the rest of the group my discovery.

“You don’t have any proof,” said Boss. “Claiming that there is malicious intent in how our society functions is a dangerous and foolhardy assertion to make. You are accusing yourself of treason.”

“I don’t need proof. Isn’t it obvious? We are them, yet we don’t think like them. Do you really think this is what I intended when I came here?”

“You need to accept reality. You did set up this system. You aren’t the First and neither are you even the first to question this system. And what if it is true? What are you going to do about it?”

I hadn’t really considered that. It was not like I could do much about the situation, but I would never believe that I could set up a community as insidious as this one. It was a matter of personal pride but also something deeper. It was not only ingrained into my DNA but my soul.

“I don’t know! All I know is that this is wrong. Everything is wrong.”

“You need to shut up and accept the system or else!” screamed Boss.

“Or else what?”

Chelsea walked over and dragged me outside. “Why don’t you calm down and get some fresh air with me before you say something you will regret? You need to cool it and not talk like that around the Boss. She is touchy about this subject, okay?”

“Why is that? She doesn’t seem like the type to take injustice sitting down. I can’t imagine anyone or anything that would get in her way.”

“I was hoping to avoid having this conversation with you, but it looks like you have left me no choice. You don’t know this, but there used to be four of us before you. We lost one of our sisters. You are her replacement. She went missing six months ago, and then later some story was made up about her. No one truly knows what happened. She also asked a lot of questions. It did not end up well for her. Boss still feels responsible for her disappearance.”

“Wow. I didn’t know. Maybe I shouldn’t be pushing her so hard. I better go apologize.”

“Apologizing will just make it worse. Just let her be for a while so she can calm down. Why don’t you try to keep your head above water until Saturday? I’ll reward you with a treat this weekend if you do.”

“And what could that be?”

“It’s a secret, duh. I won’t tell you.”

I made my way back inside and went to bed. I needed to find out more about what happened, but I wouldn’t be able to ask about it for a few days. The weekend arrived, and we had our scheduled time off.

“You ready to go?” asked Eve. Chelsea had invited her to join us. We headed away from town into the woods.

“Don’t forget your equipment.” Chelsea threw me a shovel. “We are going in search of hidden treasure.”

I smirked. “Fortunately, I have gotten a lot of practice this week with digging.”

After following a weather-beaten trail for what seemed like hours (but in reality was probably much less), I saw a dilapidated house in the distance. It was joined by a series of other burnt-out houses that were partially to fully collapsed. It looked like the fire that destroyed this settlement had happened a long time ago, as sizable trees had grown through the houses.

“This is where all of our non-store-bought goods get purchased,” noted Chelsea. The first house had a caved in roof but was otherwise intact. We marched into it. Within it, we found a dizzying array of broken, rusted, and scattered goods. Things I remembered from when I was young girl, which meant this site was at least a hundred years old if not more.

“Is this the original village?” I asked.

Chelsea responded,

“We think it may be, though nobody acknowledges it as such. Eve and I are fairly certain we are the only ones who know it still exists out here. The other Colors don’t really enjoy tramping through the woods.”

“I guess that would explain why there are still things here to find?”

“We try not to take everything at once, otherwise it wouldn’t be as fun. Let’s see if we can find something interesting. All the really good stuff is buried underground. Be careful to take your time. We don’t want to break anything.”

I began digging and after an hour located a half empty pack of cigarettes. Everyone else came up empty.

“Let’s see if the cold has preserved these.” Eve threw me a piece of flint to start a fire. I struck it against an old piece of metal, and the cigarette lit up. I had never been much of smoker, but it seemed like a special occasion. I passed around the lit cigarette as we sat around, staring at the bountiful green forest. It made a stark contrast to the age-old destruction visible in front of us.

“It’s pretty out here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. It’s nice,” Chelsea replied. “Too bad we can’t live in the woods instead of that smelly old building.”

“We could collect mushrooms and live off them like the good old days,” Eve said with a grin.

“Considering how much we know about that subject, we would probably end up high or dead from the first batch.” I laughed. It was good to be in their company. The light around us was starting to dim. The forest felt ethereal as the sun began to set. The problems of the village seemed far away. “I guess we should head back. By the way, before we leave, what was her name, the one before me?”

Eve’s eyes darkened. “Her name?” She took the cigarette from my hand and puffed a ring of a smoke. “Her name was Veronica. She went by Nika.” I took out the rest of the cigarettes and placed them back in the ground. They would stay there for another day.

“She was a lot like you but with even less impulse control. I know that sounds hard to believe. She would never shut up, though. Boss thought she was hilarious. It didn’t take them long to become an item. The problem with her was that she never thought through the consequences of what she did until it was too late.”

Chelsea took the cigarette, had one last drag, and killed the flame by rubbing it into her arm. “Now Eve and I need to pick up the pieces that she left behind.”

We slowly made our way back home before the darkness completely enveloped us.

A week passed, and it was time again for our orientation session. I walked to the now familiar room dressed in black. I had made it a point to neither shower nor clean my jumper to quietly protest our conditions. I smelled positively ripe. The Greens shuffled in, looking sunburned and exhausted. They must have been having a hard time adjusting to an agrarian lifestyle. I had never been one for constant manual labor. I couldn’t claim that I looked or felt any better than them. The only thing that made my current situation mildly tolerable was the companionship of Eve, Chelsea, and even, dare I say, Boss. Understanding what she had been through made me better appreciate why she behaved the way she did. We had reached a mutual détente, with me not asking her any prying questions and with her not yelling at me for every small mistake I made.

After the group had arrived, the Yellow began, “I hope you’ve had another productive week. I’ve spoken with all the leaders of your colors, and they seemed pleased with your performance. Today we are going to discuss mandatory retirement. As you may have noticed, there are no elderly around this village. Due to the previous hardships we have encountered and the difficulty of caring for the aged, we have a policy that upon reaching the biological equivalent of fifty-five years, all our sisters voluntarily return to the vats. We have maintained this status quo since the beginning of our colony. You may remember that the First made this decision, in her wisdom, and voluntarily ended her life at age fifty-five also.”

Now I was signed up to kill myself in twenty-five years? This culture was a perversion of all my dreams. I had hoped to create a cure for the cancers of modern society. Technology would create the equality that the world lacked. Clearly, my plans had not all come to fruition. Feeling indignant and angry, I decided it was time to take a stand. I rose from my chair, and everyone stared at me.

“And what about the old White we met? She is clearly beyond fifty years.” The Yellow smiled.

“Of course, the White is an exception to this rule if circumstances demand it. Given her wisdom in guiding us, she can depart at any age that she thinks is correct. The previous White still graces us with her presence and provides needed advice to the current.” I sat back down.

“You have also certainly seen children around the colony. Historically, we have existed by cloning, and that will never change entirely. However, we all have the desire to be mothers, so we started a policy of allowing child clones several decades ago. Given that children are incapable of any heavy manual labor and are the most fragile members of our society, it was decided that they should be raised by the Yellows. They don’t have the physical ability, innate knowledge, or strength of will that all of us born from the vats do, so we train them to be Blues. Thus they can contribute to the health of our colony in their own way.” Everyone around me nodded in agreement without questioning the Yellow. Why weren’t they livid about being told they had a mandatory execution date? My naturally aggressive nature had been bred out of them. I stood back up.

“I want to ask about the person previously in my position. Her name was Nika. What happened to her?” The Yellow seemed caught off guard but then recovered her posture.

“Nika volunteered to go back to the vats, along with the others who came before you who had reached their age of sacrifice so that you could be born. Sometimes we desire an early return when we no longer have the energy to do our jobs properly in the colony. It is considered a noble way to end your time on this earth. In every way, you can consider them your mothers. It is the cycle of life, and new blood only comes from the gift of old.”

I sat back down in shock. She had died so I could exist? Was I was here only because of her willing choice to seed a new life through willful suicide? Then I remembered what Chelsea had said and thought better of trusting any words coming out of this lying Yellow’s mouth.

“That is all for today. Your last required meeting is next week. You are dismissed.” Walking back to my flophouse, I realized what had gone unsaid between the Yellow and me. We were all expendable. Any of us could be the next one to “volunteer.”

Human lives were not meant to be treated like pet hamsters, replacing one sick pet with a healthy one whenever it was convenient, or when it was too much of a bother to care for them. Yet, Boss, Eve, and Chelsea hadn’t said a single negative thing to me. They hadn’t blamed or accused me of stealing Nika’s life away from her. Their silence showed their character as much as this society’s norms showed its. Worse, I had been willfully ignorant of their grief. I was angry, embarrassed, and ashamed. I realized that I could not face them right now without breaking down and making a fool of myself. Through a nearby window, I saw old Jane staring at me. This was her fault. What made her so special that she could live while everyone else died? I walked towards her door and started beating on it. She ran over and immediately let me in.

“Stop making a scene. The others will see you. I’ve been waiting for you, or should I say, someone like myself.” Now I was confused again. The blood drained from my face, and the fight left me. “I guess you learned the first truly unpleasant truth. I didn’t react too well the first time I heard it, either. You know, we all used to believe everything they told us here. I’m not sure if old age jogs your memory, or if your misguided idealism just leaves you after a few decades of experience.”

“How are you even still alive?”

“Oh, I learned a few things that I shouldn’t have. I get to breathe as long as I keep my mouth shut. However, I am getting rather old as you can see, and I realize now that nothing is going to change here without drastic actions. I had thought I could change one mind at a time, but they have gotten too good at removing any person who deviates too far from the party line. By the way, I’ve been listening to your orientations, and they have been very entertaining.” She held up a small radio. The microphone must have been placed in the room. “It’s a cheap toy that I got the Blues to trade for, but it’s very useful.”

“It seems like everyone else remembers certain things that I don’t, and they have accepted this reality as the right one. Is there a reason for that?”

“Let’s just say that your personality tends more to the original. Besides trying to win minds, I have had my own initiative to fix them also. We needed someone like you, Veronica and I. I thought having one agent working for me would be enough, but that plan died with her. I think you and I can fix this society if you join me.”

“Wait a second. Veronica worked for you?”

“I know things seem confusing, but give it some time and it will all sort out. You are everything we hoped you would be. Now, you need to leave before anyone sees you in here. We will meet again soon.” She shooed me out her door. “Come here again a week after your last orientation. Don’t tell anyone we talked. I will tell you my final solution to this problem then.”

My head hurt. This was getting to be a little much. I realized I was tardy for work duty, and I sprinted back to the barracks. Chelsea greeted me at the door.

“You’re late.”

“Sorry, I got delayed.” I ran in and grabbed my gear. Chelsea led the way to join the rest of the group to continue our work for the day. We made our way to the nearest farm. The pig shit, located inside their sleeping stalls, smelled especially pungent that day. I idled my way over to Boss, my feelings now overflowing with revolutionary zeal.

“Boss, don’t you have a problem with the system here?”

“That isn’t a healthy topic to discuss. I think I’ve already told you this before. You should just learn to accept it like the rest of us. The sooner you get with the system, the better.”

“You don’t believe that do you? I heard you had a relationship with Nika. I now know for a fact that she was working to change the system, and she was not alone.”

Her face turned the color of an overripe plum.

“You don’t ever talk about Nika to me! I know what happens to people who don’t know how to shut up, and you are not going to make the same mistakes she did. I will personally beat you until you can’t get out of bed so you don’t do anything stupid. Keep that in mind.” Boss then turned around and stalked away from the building.

Eve walked over and stared at me.

“You need to talk less and shovel more. I thought we had made it clear about what you can tell Boss. What is wrong with you? She is technically in charge of reporting anything we say to the White. If she doesn’t, her head rolls along with yours.”

“Is that what happened to Nika? Did the boss turn her in to save her own skin? I didn’t think she was that spineless.” I felt my vision shift as Eve slapped me off my feet.

“She is right. You need to learn to shut up.” Eve stormed off to join Boss outside. My cheek hurt from the blow, and I tried to hold back tears. Chelsea, who had been working quietly in the corner, walked towards me.

“Let’s talk later. I’ll meet you in the forest at the old house.” The rest of the day I sulked in anger and disappointment.

It was nearly pitch dark when I met Chelsea in the forest. She threw a shovel at me while she held a lit torch so we could see.

“Follow me.” She led me past the dilapidated buildings and into a field.

“I buried it here.”

“What is it?”

“It’s something that will destroy one or both of us. It has already killed before, but I think you are setting yourself up for trouble anyway, based on your recent behavior. You might as well know the truth if you are planning to go out in a blaze of glory.” After a few moments of digging, I heard a clink, and Chelsea pulled out a small box.

“We found what’s inside here last year under one of the razed buildings.” She pulled out an old digital video recorder. “Hopefully, it still has some energy. It was a pain to find a charger for it.”

She clicked the on button. The low battery indicator was blinking, but it appeared that there was enough juice to play what was stored on it. The screen flickered to life, and an older version of me appeared. She was covered in blood. There was so much blood. Something very bad had just happened. Behind her, the room she was in was ablaze. Another clone was trying to break down the door, which was not budging.

I only have a minute or two left. She has taken over the settlement. I started this with the best intentions. It was a struggle of a lifetime to make this village succeed. There were too many sacrifices, and good intentions were not enough to survive the uncompromising winters. However, we did it. We all had roles to play and I chose the humblest to lead. I lived by “Each according to her ability and need,” but what happens when everyone has the same ability and need? I had not thought that this would be the consequence. All five of us were supposed to be equal. She didn’t agree with that, or should I say I didn’t agree, since everyone here is me. It’s my fault that this mess got started. What a fool I was. She has started selectively modifying the genetic memories of my blueprint for the future. I’m leaving this so someone knows. I know my soul will go on into the future. The Second is not to be trusted. This was all her doing. I hope you stop her. We can do it and save everyone. Please save my dream.

I replayed the video two more times. The time stamp appeared to be close to two hundred years old. The power died on the device.

“I knew something wasn’t right here.” It then hit me. She had said five of us. Not six. Five. There had been no White in her society. I thought back to the video. What had she been wearing? She had been wearing black like me. Was that woman the First? It wasn’t certain, but it seemed pretty likely. The Second had betrayed her and modified the ones who had come after. But why was I different? I had been ‘born different.’ I didn’t blindly accept what I was told. The memory transfer must not have been perfect. Anomalies were always present in a procedure as complicated as cloning. The old White had implied that she had done some tinkering of her own also. Was I a consequence of changes she had made purposefully? Unfortunately, this anomaly would not take all this sitting down.

“So what are you going to do about it?” Chelsea asked.

“I think I need to go have a talk with the old White first. Did you share this with the others?”

“Nika asked me to keep it a secret. I honored her wish. I don’t want to see any more of my family get killed. If Boss or Eve saw this, I am certain they would also get volunteered. Even if I brought it into the town square, do you think the others would have believed me?”

“No. Sadly, I don’t. I see now that Nika tried to expose the truth, the best way she could.”

“And she paid the consequences. If you want to do the same, you will need a better plan than being indignant and angry. That is why I showed you this. I think you are a little bit more thoughtful than she was. You also seem to know certain things that we don’t. I think you are the throwback that she was waiting for.”

“I hope you are right. I think I know what I need to do first.” I handed the video recorder over and started making my way back to the dorm.

The next day, I woke up early, snuck out to the village, and went straight to Old Jane’s residence. It took a while for her to make it to the door.

“What do you need? It’s hardly 5 AM.” I grabbed her by the neck and dragged her inside, slamming the door behind her.

“This is your fault! You manipulated and destroyed everything, killing the First in cold blood. The Second was the enemy of our society, and you are a copy of her! Your White color is all I need to know about whose side you are on. You’ve been using me from the start. I’m not going to let history repeat itself.” I could hear her starting to wheeze. I let her go so she could have one last chance to explain herself.

“Are you done? Sit down and tell me. What do you think you know?”

“I will not sit down. I know that you have manipulated the genetic memories of my sisters. There was never even a White. It is something you made up to concentrate power. There was never supposed to be a class system where one Color was unequal to another. You disgust me.”

“All partially true accusations, but with no proof, you are just spouting idle gossip. You know that we are born knowing all of this. We begin our lives knowing we are murderers. How do you think I have lived so long? I’ve been able to use this information to keep myself alive in spite of the new version of me being in power.”

“So what do you want me to do about it? You were in charge and did nothing.”

“I am old and no longer capable of changing anything. You can still make a difference. I am not interested in sending myself to the vats voluntarily. However, I feel like I have one more revolutionary action left in me before I pass on. I have my own ideals and a conscience also, although you probably think of me only as a monster. Just because I am a copy of the Second doesn’t mean that you and I are inherently different. I believe in the ‘Greatest Good,’ and I think the current system is not set up for this maxim.”

“What can I possibly do to undo hundreds of years of brainwashing and gene manipulation? I am outnumbered, and I don’t want to meet an unhappy end like your last conspirator.”

“You’ve noticed you are different than the others. We just need to see more of those differences. Once we achieve that, the path forward will become clear.”

“And how do we do that?”

“I’ll show you. Meet me at the birthing center at eleven PM.”

“How can I trust you?”

“If you can’t trust yourself, who can you trust?” I sat there and considered it. It was true that we all began from the same roots. I could also understand her need for revenge, as I felt that emotion, as well.

I made my way back to the bunk where I found my family waiting for me. Boss spoke first.

“Why did you sneak out this morning?”

“I felt like going for an early morning jog.”

“I’ve never woken up early for exercise a day in my life.”

“People change. You should know that.”

“And what does that mean, exactly?”

“We are not all the same.”

“That much is obvious. Tell me something I don’t know. For example, why you are trying to deceive me? We may be different people, but our telltale signs are still the same. You should really move your hand away from your mouth when you lie. Now, what is going on?”

“It is too dangerous. I don’t want to get you involved.” Boss grabbed me by the neck, pushing me painfully into the wall.

“Don’t tell me you are going to be like Nika! She was butchered. The village is set up to take care of nuisances like you. What can you do to change any of this?” It was getting hard to breathe, but I had to speak the truth. I owed it to her.

“I met with the old White. She and I are going to bring down this whole system.” Boss let me go.

“Are you an idiot? She was the one in charge of the regime.”

“I can’t sit here and do nothing. Everything we worked for has been corrupted.”

Chelsea decided it was an opportune time to intercede. “Boss, you need to let her choose her own path.”

“I agree.” Eve nodded. “It’s not her fault that Nika died.”

“I know,” said Boss, “but I can’t let her repeat Nika’s mistakes, either. What are you going to do that’s different?”

“Nika was killed because she thought she could bring truth to the blind. I don’t know what difference I can make, but I’ve got Old Jane at my side on this. I think old age has opened her eyes to the need for change. She will help me, even if it is out of selfishness for her legacy. The woman is the most knowledgeable of us currently alive. Without her assistance, I have no hope in succeeding. Besides, if she doesn’t help me, you will tell the next me to not trust her. I am meeting her tonight.”

“I see it is pointless to try and stop you. Even if I locked you in here, I’m certain you would find a way to escape. I still remember how stubborn we all are once we’ve set our mind to a goal. You can skip work today. You need to prepare for this evening,” Boss said. “We will cover for you.” She came over and gave me a hug. “You better come back.”

“Don’t forget that the rest of us are here also. Give them hell!” Chelsea said.

“We will back you up when you need us. We need someone to put these old ghosts to rest,” Eve added.

Evening came, and I made my way out the door before Eve, Chelsea, or Boss had returned. I knew that Boss would feel guilty if she didn’t try to stop me one last time, and I couldn’t cause her any more pain. That wouldn’t be right by Nika’s memory. I sat in the forest, admiring the majesty of nature until the appointed time came. I made my way to the village. Old Jane was waiting in a blind alley a block away from the facility.

“What is the plan?”

“I’ll tell you more when we get in.”

“How do I know you aren’t setting me up?”

“Look at how decrepit and ancient I have become. If I were to betray you, I am certain you could easily kill me. I know that things need to change. Living a long life gives you some perspective. Now let’s go.”

She led me quickly to the front of the old building where I had been first brought into this world. The door was barred.

“Fortunately, I still have a few tricks up my sleeve.” She opened the door with an ID card. “Follow me inside.” We made our way to the basement where the cloning equipment was stored. “Youth always goes first.”

I walked in and saw in front of me dozens of fully grown clones floating in their vats. Their lifeless eyes were blank, in spite of them all being alive. All they lacked was information to fill their empty brains. For now, they lived unaware and breathed the liquid oxygen that surrounded them.

“So what now?” I asked.

“After Nika was recycled, I thought long and hard about what had gone wrong in our strategy. It became clear to me that educating the masses was just not possible. The controls that had been put in place were too strong to be broken by one woman, regardless of how passionate she was.”

“So what does that have to do with what we are doing now?”

“When you came and visited me, it was clear that some of Nika’s personality had been displaced into you. That gave me an idea. One woman could do nothing, but an army? That could bring about change. Now, can you help me by walking over to that control panel over there?”

I did as she asked.

I turned around and saw too late the syringe she held. I tried to knock her hand away, but it was too late. She injected me with a paralytic. I fell to the floor.

“I’m sorry it has to be this way. I tried the first time with words. They weren’t enough. I think something within Nika activated your latent memories when she was reprocessed into you. The only problem is that her raw material was mixed with a bunch of others. We can’t have that happen this time. Don’t worry. It won’t be painful. Your death won’t be in vain. Your sacrifice will serve the greater good. Be the revolution, Star.”

I started to feel the life drain away from me. There would be others after me. Justice would be served. Darkness swirled my vision as I slowly went to sleep for the last time.

I suddenly awoke. She had failed to kill me. I would get that bitch back for double-crossing me. I felt weak. The tranquilizer must have worn off. I lifted myself up carefully and looked around. There were dozens of others waking up around me. Old Jane’s body lay on the ground in front of me. She had been killed with a scalpel to the neck. One of my sisters grabbed me by my hand and lifted me to my feet. She was covered in birthing agent. I noticed that I was, too. I asked her a single question.

“Do you know who you are?”

“I know who I am. Do you who you are, Star?”

I started to laugh as once again I realized that I was not the First, but just maybe I would be the last.

The Rerun

The world had ended. That much was clear. Moscow had not called for an update in over a hundred years. I sat at my desk staring out of the research station, BIOS 5. It wasn’t the ice or the radioactive poison in the air that bothered me. In Siberia, a never-ending moroz was the normal way of life. The thing slowly driving me insane was the unending boredom and repetition of seeing the same faces. Every day started the same and then ended the same.

Wake up at seven. Spend fifteen minutes marveling at my un-aging, twenty-five year-old, blonde-haired, heart-shaped face. Make myself presentable by seven forty-five, using what little makeup and small tricks for beauty that still existed. Eat a bar of algal protein and take my daily telomere expansion therapy pill. Walk to my station and sit down to stare at an antiquated computer display at eight. Spend ten minutes considering whether not having connected to the network during the collapse was actually a blessing. Dither around and pretend to have something to work on until lunchtime at noon. Have a different delectable bar of algal protein for lunch with some lukewarm tea. Go back to the computer at twelve-thirty and play solitaire (the only game found on this device after much searching) on extra difficult mode for one hour and thirty minutes. Leave my desk and avoid running into others, since I now had their routines memorized. Exercise for two hours until four to maintain my fifty-eight-kilo physique. Down a glass of water and have another pill. Shower and spend the remaining time until six memorizing classic literature (this week Evgeniy Onegin). Eat the final meal of the day from the dwindling stores of canned goods with the rest of my imprisoned scientists. Attempt to savor the flavor of animals that will never exist again. Forcibly socialize until nine. Be in bed by ten. Sleep and then repeat.

One would think, with five hundred rugged individualists here, that we could avoid having the petty quarrels and troubles that plagued the modern society that abandoned us and left us behind. However, one could not stop human nature any more than I could stop counting every mind-numbing day like a prison convict. I should know this fact better than anyone else. To become a world-renowned expert in exohumanology, I needed to learn everything there is to know about people. The flaws of humans were always the same in any society, both past and present, regardless of the intelligence level of the populace. We came here as exiles from an interconnected world, where loners like us were looked down upon, to focus on our research and nothing else.

It was no surprise to us when the phone had stopped ringing. It had never been a matter of if, but when. A society built on the foundations of knowing what everyone else was doing every moment of their lives was bound to fail the second that something unexpected occurred. The interwoven and unfathomably large number of connections in society could not be unstrung in an instant. One just had to look at what happened to the homogenized banana of the twentieth century when blight had come upon it. Due to intelligent human design, it had become infertile and weak, unable to respond to disease and adversity. People had become the same way, and for that reason alone they had all died. We had thought ourselves smarter than the herd, and we had outlived them. However, our machines weren’t growing food at sustainable rates anymore, and we were running out pills. Our time was also coming.

I was the only microbiologist on staff, the[] lead of the research group. When we knew we were alone, it was my task to find a solution for us to continue. I searched for a solution that would modify our DNA enough to survive this wasteland that we now lived in, but the problems were too great. Homo sapiens required too many resources to thrive over the amount of time we needed for the planet to recover. So instead I dug deeper and created a new kind of life which would continue humanity in a new, different form. True, it would breathe underwater and be microscopic, but it would survive this never-ending winter, unlike us. It would always have plenty to eat, it would be shielded from the now deadly air, and it would never know the disdain I had for eating the same thing every day for decades, having known no better. I envied the life they would lead in the hot spring that I seeded them into by the ancient graveyard. My people, full of ignorance, but also satisfaction. Not like me with my failing old computers and games of solitaire and with the pinnacle of my work behind me. The clock struck six as I looked up and saw that it was time for dinner.

Walking through the dining room, I stared down at the sparkling linoleum floors, which had been shined and glossed by the constant pacing of hungry scientists coming to and from their labs. I collected my “meal” and looked around the room, deciding that today I would attempt to be sociable instead of just going through the motions. [] From the corner of my eyes, I spotted Alexander Ivanovich, one of my many old boyfriends, and sat down across from him. Sasha was a very plain man, neither very large nor skinny, with a shock of brown hair surrounding his square face. For some unknown reason, he still wore glasses, even though corrective surgery took no time at all. He was a man who carried a heavy weight with him, wherever he went, as a result of some long-forgotten tragedy that he told no one about. In spite of his depressive and alcoholic nature, he was always an interesting man to be around. Sasha was now the number one scientist in the research group due to my failure to find us a long-term survival solution. The rational part of me did not want to begrudge him that distinction, but it was difficult not to feel a twinge of jealousy. He was developing an extremely unconventional solution to our problem; if it worked, it would allow us to be finally free of this place.

“Sasha, how goes your project? I heard you have been making some advances in your chronological research?” [] I tried not to choke as I swallowed my bar of Green.

“Sara, it is going harasho. I believe the technology is ready for beta stage testing. I hope that with my device we will be able to escape this blight once and for all. The problem is that it appears to work in only one direction, so I have no way of allowing for a return trip or actually directly verifying that it works. It seems, though, that the indirect measurements of the tachyons are all exactly as theory dictates.”

This got me interested. It was rare to hear Sasha say anything was going well, or even fairly well, given he was truly a Russian soul. This was actually the most positive thing I had heard out of this perennial pessimist in the last twenty years.

“How much longer do you think it will be until it will be ready to use on people? You’re my only hope to escape this Ad.”

Sasha made a lopsided grin. “Sara, it won’t be much longer now. All we need is a little bit more time.”

Apparently, he thought his attempt at humor was charming. “Chronological research is very complex and uncertain. Unlike your thermal test site near the old graveyard, we never get to see if our test subjects live or end up as pieces of der’mo after I send them through. I’ve experimented with trying to make the trip two ways. Even if I do succeed, the little white rats, although quite clever, aren’t smart enough to tell us what decade they have visited whenever I send them through the arc. There is a chance that inorganic substances will be subject to fourth dimensional temporal paradox constraints preventing transit. It will be done when it is done. It feels like only yesterday you laughed at me for even spending time on the idea.”

Back when I first met Sasha, most thought him to be insane. It was true that time travel had started as a communist pipe dream hundreds of years ago, after Stalin had conquered Nazi laboratories full of esoteric and occult research. The majority of the Führer’s ideas had no basis in science or reality, but somehow this one tangent had been fruitful in laying down some basic theoretical foundations. No one had actually expected it to work except for Sasha, and maybe me. I didn’t believe in the idea itself, but I knew Sasha. He was not the buffoon people made him out to be. Genius is rarely recognized by contemporaries, and Sasha in my eyes was only guilty of maybe being a little too eccentric for current times. It was this unique quality that originally attracted me to him. It didn’t hurt that he did anything I asked in bed.

“I understand that, but we don’t have a choice. We need to leave soon. Before long, it will impossible to resettle somewhere else and lay down the roots we need to survive. Once we start aging, we will have only a limited time to have children before our clock runs out.”

Turning his grin into a frown, Sasha shook his head saying, “I know. I know.” He finished his food and shuffled his way back to his laboratory. I was left alone again in a small sea of humanity. Looking around, I realized I could bear no more company and made my escape back to my room. I undressed and immediately washed off the stink of humanity that had surrounded me earlier.

It was clear to me that he would never be ready. Decisiveness was never one of Sasha’s personality traits. We had been colleagues for a long time and lovers for even longer, until I finally broke up with him due to his lack of a backbone. I guess I also couldn’t get over my genetics of wanting a strong Russian man any more than anyone else. I told him that we could stay friends, and that is what we did. Sasha was a research scientist at heart and was scared of going out into the field. That itself was a bit of a sad irony. Every one of us was strong in both mind and body. Genetic modification had made sure that we were solidly built and had plenty of extra space for our enhanced brains. The pills allowed us to stay at the age of our choosing (as long as our supplies lasted). However, genetics did not give a man a spine. A woman would have to do that instead.

Lying down in bed and staring at the fading ceiling, which mirrored our future plight of turning old and ashen, my resolve began to steel. We would die before running out of food, since we would begin aging at a normal rate. There would never be a next generation as no practical-minded scientist would have children knowing that our resources were constantly and terminally depleting. Something needed to break the deadlock to save humanity from itself. I retired to sleep to consider what I should do next.

I slept unsoundly through the evening, beset by nightmares. Finally, inspiration struck me at two in the morning. I would use the techniques of my reviled forefather Stalin to move us away from our aloof, self-defeating lifestyle. I made my way quietly out of the room and crept into the Maker generation room, which was unlocked. Normally, important areas of the facility would be sealed and protected by security safeguards, but after so many years without incident, no one felt the need to keep up any of the old-world safety procedures. The algae were already not thriving, so it did not take much effort to make sure they would not survive. A little bit of quickly concocted algaecide was all that was needed.

I woke up the next day to the sound of terror. There was crying and screaming in the halls. I knew that the common enemy—starvation—would unite our tribe like the Great War had in years past. Starting today, my daily routine was officially dead. I walked into the lunchroom faking a look of concern on my face to the gathered crowd. It was especially difficult to act this way, given this was the first time I had felt like smiling in years. The gathering was in itself a historic moment as it had been fifty-two years since everyone had congregated in the same room. Group assembly was a relic from the past when someone from Moscow had been nominally in charge. A sea of familiar faces assailed me, and I felt a wave of disgust. For a second, I decided to let them all starve and let nature take its course, but my better angel won out. It was my opportunity now to strike and once again take center stage.

“What is going on?” I inquired to the nearest person, a nuclear physicist named Lukov.

“The Maker’s feedstock has been poisoned. We will run out of food stores within the year and starve.” At this point, I faked a look of upset. It almost felt real given that I didn’t want to die of hunger, either.

“This is a tragedy!” I yelled as loudly as I could back to Lukov. “What shall we do?” From the looks of it, groups were starting to form already amongst the scientists. The plan was proceeding perfectly. I saw that many in the room had quieted their conversations and were staring my way. Then, an unexpected interruption occurred before I could continue with my planned speech.

“We need to start rationing now. We will be able to survive for three years. Please bring all your spare canned food to me. I will form a governing Kometet that will start allocating food based on need,” spoke Mikhail Petrovich, a large, powerfully-built, two-meter-tall psychiatrist who had a passing resemblance to a grizzly bear.

“Who put you in charge with such a glupyy idea? We need to form a scavenging Kometet to locate supplies outside our building. We can find more food in abandoned cities and possibly new materials for the Makers,” rebutted Andre Gregorovich, an even larger physiologist, who also shared a kinship with a large animal, probably a bull moose. At this point, everyone started to yell at one another in a huge tumult with Misha and Andre leading the crowd against one another. I had to take control of this situation before it devolved anymore. I stood on a table and whistled loudly, grabbing everyone’s attention.

“Colleagues, Druz’ya, we can all panic and tear at each other’s throats, but that is hardly productive. Misha’s plan will just result in delayed starvation. Andre’s plan depends on traveling long distances for uncertain supplies while slowly dying from the poisoned atmosphere. We are all rational people, and I have a simple solution that I propose. You are all aware of Sasha’s time machine. What you are not aware of is that it works. We should focus on completing his tests to allow us to escape not from this world, but from this time.” At this point, all faces turned to look at Sasha, who was hiding in the corner of the room. His face was beet red. Andre asked, “Sasha, is what Sara says true?”

“This is insanity,” Sasha stuttered out loud. “The technology requires decades of testing. I have barely finished testing it on animals. I have no idea how it will react to humans. The fact that it even possibly works at all is a miracle.”

“Look at how modest he is,” I responded. “There is no need to avoid the spotlight, Sasha. I can attest that your discovery works. We need to make use of it as soon as possible.”

Misha, sensing the room’s changing mood added, “I support this idea. Andre and I will work on preparing supplies and setting up the needed training for this mission.”

Andre, realizing his opponent was making a temporary peace, walked across the room and shook Misha’s hand. “I agree. Let’s work together to do what it is needed.”

Sasha was now desperately outnumbered. He had no choice but to accept the group verdict despite his protest. Misha and Andre formed their committees with their trusted cohorts. Both stayed quietly on the sidelines preparing for their respective negotiated roles in the future community we would be building together.

Through the coming months, we gathered the necessities: shelter, weapons, and medications. The outpost buzzed with an anticipation and excitement that hadn’t been seen in decades. Meanwhile, Sasha hid in his lab, refining his technology, trying to make it ready for human use. He increased the size of the temporal field to a height of two-point-three meters tall and one meter wide, where previously it could only be measured in centimeters. He also confirmed that time travel would always be a one-way event. The universe could be composed of multiple versions of itself, but it wouldn’t allow someone to go back to the one they came from originally. The world no longer existed exactly in the same temporal space (or way) once they left it due to its history being altered. Three uneventful months passed, and it was time to go.

As we gathered in the cafeteria for our last meal, a feast greeted us, resplendent with all sorts of long-forgotten delicacies and vodka. I sat down at the table with Sasha, who already appeared profusely drunk. His face was as red as a beet in wintertime borscht.

“We will be traveling into the past tomorrow and will never come back,” he proclaimed.

“Yes. Thanks to you, we will be able to continue into the next generation.”

“Yes. Thanks to me. Have you even considered if we deserve a tomorrow given all the selfish and cruel things we are all responsible for? I chose to live here in exile until the end came. What was your purpose for coming to BIOS 5? You don’t realize what a mess you’ve made.”

“What do you mean?” I feigned a look of innocence.

“I know you poisoned the algal plant. No one else here would dare do something that insane. You were the only one who knew about how far my research had progressed. I know you have always had a Mother Teresa complex, but Jesus, Sara, that was foolish.” I thought to deny the allegations, but Sasha knew me too well.

“And so what if I did it? We were doomed to end our lives here watching humanity slowly perish. Not all of us are nihilists like you. It was the right thing to do. If you thought it was so wrong, you should have turned me in.”

“You know I would never do that. I’ve always had a weak spot for you. You are the only person who has ever allowed me to forget. I hope everything goes well for both our sakes. We all pay for our sins eventually and running away from them does not bring you any closer to justice. I’m going to bed. If you want one last romp in this century for old (or soon to be new) times, you know where I will be.” Sasha winked and stumbled up.

Misha, seeing that Sasha was about to leave, decided to not miss an opportunity to give a toast in the grand Russian tradition of our forefathers. He walked over and slapped Sasha on the back, nearly knocking him over. He then clinked his glass loudly, and the room fell silent.

Tovarischchi, we have come a long way. We sit here today thanks to the genius of one man, Sasha. We all met here previously in a state of despair, but with his research, we now will have a fresh start in life.”

Andre immediately butted in, “Misha is right. Not only is Sasha a great intellect, but he is also the savior of humanity. To Sasha!”

As these two men bickered for attention, Sasha slipped away from their grasp. I felt a pang of envy knowing that I was the one that had really caused our departure. Why did these men get all the attention? However, I stayed silent about my undoubtedly necessary crimes. As the time machine only allowed one-way travel, we would not be coming back. Petty feelings, especially from the true savior of humanity, were something better left behind in this dead world. Maybe one last time with Sasha wasn’t a bad consolation prize. This would be the final night we would spend under this roof. I stumbled to his room, opened the door, and locked it behind me.

The next day, hung-over and tired, we gathered our backpacks and equipment. I brought something for Sasha to eat, but he was too ill with anxiety to keep anything down. I had no such worries and ate a hearty breakfast. When the appointed time came, I pushed my way to the front of the line and walked through the Arc, happy to be free of boredom at last. Unfortunately, I got a little bit more than I’d bargained for.

Stepping through the machine, my body felt immediately light. I was overwhelmed by a cacophony of sights and sounds unfamiliar to one who had lived amongst the quiet hum of computers. I was in a forest of tall green trees, surrounded by a mat of moss and grass, covered by a layer of light white snow. It was a portrait of the ancient, untamed[_ taiga_] looking as picturesque as something out of a fairytale. Around me was a vast, quiet emptiness, free of human influence, that made one realize how small they were in the universe of Mother Nature. It was a paradise of nature that I had thought I would never see. Then I noticed a small fact that had escaped me in my rapture. I was completely naked.

That[_ zhopa_] Sasha had definitely designed a working time machine, but one that only transported living things. None of the equipment I had brought had come with me. We were completely helpless. It would require divine intervention for our entire group to survive the coming days. I started to shiver as the biting wind prickled against my skin. I tried to scream into the temporal distortion to stop everyone from coming through, but it was in vain. Time was like a slide without a ladder that let you go down but never come back up. People started to stream through behind me. The last one to come through the arc was poor Sasha who was greeted by a sea of angry, confused, and naked breasts and buttocks.

As we all sat in a state of confusion, Andre and Misha moved away from the discontented group and came back with smiles on their faces.

“We need leadership in this clearly desperate situation,” began Misha. “Andre and I will have to take on that onerous mantle. We must come together and unify to survive in this land Sasha has thrust us into.”

“Thank you, Misha,” Andre continued. “We must gather and hunt for food, build shelters, and create clothes. We have chosen men who will be in charge of each of these activities. I, of course, volunteer to lead the building and planning Kometet. We will help you all survive Sasha’s folly.” I wanted to speak up on Sasha’s behalf but decided it would be best to let them finish what they had planned to say. I was not exactly in a strong position to defend him.

“Andre,” Misha said, “thank you for your sacrifice. I will also volunteer to lead the hunting committee. Naturally, the women will be in charge of gathering food and creating clothes. We will divide everyone else according to their appropriate jobs.” The masses leaped to follow these unilateral proclamations with gusto. By offering something to focus on besides the cold, it was easy to guide these newly poor wretched masses. Their Maslow’s pyramid had been reset from self-actualization to physiological needs. They would do anything for the future hope of warmth and safety. I walked over next to Sasha who stood ashen, stricken, and tearful.

“It is my fault. My entire fault. I did it again. Forgive me. We have nothing now.” He continued to mutter, over and over again. I realized that everyone else had separated themselves from him. It wasn’t clear if this was a conscious choice after listening to Andre and Misha or actual spite on their part, but the message to him was clear. He was responsible for this entire situation, and he would stand alone amongst the group.

“It isn’t your fault. You didn’t force anyone to go with you. Everyone made their own decisions.” Decisions I had forced on them.

“No. I have killed us all as surely as if I’d put a gun to your head and shot you myself,” he quietly responded.Unused to building things with our hands, our shelters were ramshackle tepees built from fallen branches. The food we found was a meager collection of nuts along with what little small game the men brought back from their hunts. The coverings we made as clothes were laughable and provided little protection from the elements. Without the fires we started, we would have died from hypothermia. Very quickly, I learned the other rule that Stalin had taught us.

On the seventh night, barely clothed, still frozen solid, and with empty stomachs, Andre and Misha enraged the pliable mob of formerly civilized people into burning the wicker man.

“There is a man responsible for all of this. He doomed us to this miserable life. We have finished our investigation, and we have important news you all must hear,” proclaimed Andre. “Yes, friends, we have discovered that Sasha sabotaged the Makers to force us to give him attention and acclaim. He was jealous and felt vindictive for all the attention that others had gotten at the institute. He knew that we would have no choice but to use his Arc to escape the consequences of his actions.”

Misha continued, “This is horrible news that I am sure you do not want to hear. I know it is difficult to believe, but it is all true. We, unfortunately, need to make him take responsibility for his crimes against us all!” At this point, two men grabbed Sasha and tied him to a tree. He did not resist them.

“Do you have anything to say in your defense?” Andre sneered.

“I have nothing to say,” Sasha said stoically. An unnatural calm had appeared in his demeanor. The man was volunteering to be shot by the execution squad. I had to do something.

I ran in front of him and exclaimed, “Sasha is not to blame. Let him go. I destroyed the Makers. If you need someone to denounce, condemn me.”

Andre picked me up and dragged me away from Sasha. “Look at how his woman defends him. He is not even a man. He is a worm. Maybe even less than a worm.” I fought to break free but was overpowered. Sasha looked into my eyes with a fearless look and mouthed, “You are forgiven.”

Misha picked up a medium-size rock and threw it at him. The stone hit him square in the forehead, spraying blood everywhere. Andre followed suit, and another wound erupted on Sasha. The worst part was that he did not cry or plead for his life as the hail fell down on him. A villain out of a hero, our new home would be christened with his sacrifice. I watched in horror as my friend became a crimson ragdoll.

Andre and Misha had cemented their leadership of this new civilization. They would now guide us to our salvation. I knew where this new society was heading, and I wanted none of it. Knowing that my hubris had killed him, my mind rebelled in disgust, and I escaped from this group of savages. I ran through the brambles and brush, ignoring the scrapes and cuts that now marred my previously untouched body. The pain was nothing compared to what I had caused. I fled for mindless mile after mile until I could run no more, lost now from all humanity for the rest of my time on this earth. My thoughts started to steady as exhaustion took hold of me. It was a tragedy what happened to Sasha and undoubtedly my fault, but I could not cry about it any longer if I wanted to survive on my own. I would live the remainder of my life in penance, as a silent monk, to make up for my failures.

My now useless intellect did not guide me well in this primeval land. It would have been funny to consider how sad I looked if I weren’t so miserable. I was an embarrassment compared to my ancient Chuckchi ancestors who lived in a past just like this one. I no longer hungered for the life of excitement that I had foolishly longed for. I tried to hunt to get some much-needed protein and an animal skin to provide me warmth. I fashioned a stone tomahawk, expecting to club a passing animal like I had seen in historical nature documentaries. Finding no large game, I saw a small squirrel in the distance. Even a rodent to eat would be preferable to the grass that I was currently chewing on. Grass had no nutritional value, but it staved off the emptiness in my stomach. I slowly walked towards the squirrel, failing at concealing my overly loud footsteps. As a woman, I had spent my whole life pushing myself into rooms as loudly as I could to even the playing field with men, but these habits only caused me harm now. Its large eyes stared at me as it saw my approach from twenty feet away. I threw my weapon at it hoping to knock it dead. My tomahawk fell with a sad thud right in front of the animal. It then gave me a confused look and ran away.

The day passed with me, unsurprisingly, failing to capture anything. Animals were a lot smarter than I had given them credit for. I knew that I was running out of time, even though my genetic enhancements were doing their part in keeping me functioning and alive for now. I looked for shelter in which to rest during the night. Huddling for warmth under a pile of leaves I had pushed together, I could not sleep. By the time I realized I needed a fire, it was too late. I was unable to see any meaningful distance in the overwhelming darkness that surrounded me. There was no hope of locating any dry kindling without the potential of losing my one paltry shelter. With my teeth chattering and my bones aching, the wind cut through me like a knife despite my coverings. Snow started to fall and dance through the air, catching the occasional beam of light that broke through the cloud-filled sky. I did not expect to survive that evening. The temperature dropped to the point where I could spit and see ice form as it hit the ground next to me. My weakened body tried to conserve heat as it burned through what little fat reserves I had left. It was a fitting price to pay for what I did to Sasha. I started to fall asleep. I would die if I slept. I willed myself to stay awake. I could make it one more day. He would want me to go down with my head held high, not hung in defeat.

Morning came ever so slowly, but the sun eventually rose. Sleep-deprived, feverish, and weak, I stood up, picked up my tomahawk, and went deeper into the woods. I had lived through what I knew was probably my last night on earth. I walked all morning as the flurries continued their slow assault on my being. As I looked around, the ground beckoned to me like a soft down bed. In front of me, I saw a clearing with a felled deer lying in the middle of it. It was still barely breathing, having been shot through the neck. It was trying to go through the motions of living even though its fate had been sealed. Food had arrived, but it was too late for me. I didn’t have the will to finish it and add one more victim to the tally that I would surely have to answer for in my next life. I rested my head on its back, which was still comfortably warm to the touch. The animal didn’t seem to mind having a companion in its final moments. It must have realized that we were both too wounded to go on. I felt its heart give out and beat its last. I closed my eyes as I heard a noise in the distance. Animal, predator, prey, friend, enemy—they all ended up in the same place at the end. It was time to take a well-deserved rest. The noise was coming closer. The footsteps sounded familiar. Maybe Sasha was coming to take me home with him. I opened my eyes and took one last look at the world. From across the field, I saw the reaper, eyes coated in black, wearing the pelt of a bear over his head and body, coming deliberately but slowly towards me to collect my soul. I slept the slumber of the dead and finally felt at peace with my choices.

I woke up in a dimly fire-lit cave. I was alive. How was it possible? I tried to lift myself up, but the weight of all the tanned hides covering me prevented me from getting up easily. I looked above me. There appeared to be charcoal drawings depicting primitive scenes of tribal life. There was a mural of a man hunting, a woman with a pierced nose dancing, and many others that seemed to sway and come to life in the limelight. I felt deliriously happy to be amongst the warmth of the living and free of nature’s cold. That was until I saw who was sleeping next to me. It was a naked man, but like no man I had ever seen in the modern world. He was short and hairy. His head was small compared to mine, but his torso was bulky in build like an oak. He rustled from his deep slumber. I was too afraid to move or speak with this stranger lying next to me. Was he my savior or my captor? It seemed like my body had been unmolested in spite of his nudity.

In the distance, the sounds of children playing echoed against the walls of the cavern. The noise grew, announcing the arrival of the rest of his tribe. They were a small group of approximately twenty-five people who looked very similar to the sleeping man. I noticed many of them had fair features such as freckles and red hair. They did not fit my stereotype of prehistoric people. I forced my way out of my covers and stood up to thank them. I immediately noticed that everyone was clothed, and I was not. I surprised myself by letting out a scream. This was a normal reaction to embarrassment, but they all stared at me in confusion. Nudity did not seem to bother them. I tried to calm down and communicate with them. They babbled back to me in a language I did not understand. An older woman yelled at the sleeping man. He woke up drearily, responded something unintelligible to her, and then picked me up over his shoulder and began carrying me into the deep recesses of the cave. I realized I was not a guest, but a prisoner. I immediately began to fight, punching and scratching at the back of his head. The man, not expecting my resistance, threw me from his shoulder onto the ground. My skull landed on top of a rock, causing me to black out once again.

When I woke up, the naked man (who was now fully dressed) was sitting next to me. My hands were now tied. Someone had gotten me into some clothes. The man attempted some rudimentary sign language to explain what happened. He had seen me fall unconscious and had dragged me back to his family. I realized then that his sleeping next to me had warded off the hypothermia I had been suffering from. He had saved my life. I should have been grateful. Instead, I had knocked him in the head.

I pointed at myself with my still free fingers and said, “Sara.”

He pointed at himself and said, “Igg.”

I had first expected for the little hairy man to force himself upon me. The strong conquering the weak is the history of our world, and he was definitely a beast in many respects. He smelled, had poor dental hygiene, and breathed way too loudly when he was trying to make a point. However, he did not harm me or do anything disrespectful. He brought me food and water. I was confused by how I still lay unmolested by the end of the third day. This man must want something in return for his kindness. The fourth day came, and I was told through gesture to get up and follow. He then drew pictures in the dirt on the cave floor and started to say words. It appeared that I would be getting language lessons. Igg never complained as he sat with me for hours, teaching the rudiments of his tongue, which turned out to be relatively simple.

By the third week, I decided that Igg sounded too uncivilized and that I should give him a more modern-sounding name. He didn’t seem to mind. Many weeks later, I woke to find that my former captor, now friend, was gone, and in his place stood the old woman.

“Let us see how well Igg taught you.”

“I call him Ivan now. He is a good teacher. I am thankful he brought me back with him.”

“I see you speak our language well. You can call me Mother. Where do you come from?” she asked.

“I come from a faraway place beyond these lands,” I responded diplomatically.

She chuckled, “And in this faraway land, why did they not teach you to hunt quietly to feed yourself or to cloth yourself against Father Frost? You are like a newborn baby who cannot take care of itself.”

I thought carefully on how to respond. This woman obviously held some sort of seniority or spiritual power within this group. “I do not know the ways of your family, but I would like to learn, Mother. I have other skills beyond those that you know that would be valuable to keep your family alive.”

She grunted, “Is that so? What would they be?”

“I am a medicine woman who can cure sickness. I can fix the pains you feel with my knowledge. When summer comes, I will be able to locate many helpful plants to make your journey easier. Let me show you what I can do.”

“Well then, make yourself of use. You have been keeping Igg away from his other duties that he must fulfill.” With that, my bonds were cut, and I joined the tribe.

Summer soon came, and we left the cave to find new hunting grounds. They taught me how to kill prey and use a bow and arrow. In return, I taught them how to treat and heal their wounds with the right plant compounds. I learned how to tan clothes and make fire with my new flint knife. They learned how to boil and purify their water so it wouldn’t make them sick. I even taught them the benefits of proper bodily hygiene. It was a tough but honest life, and every day was filled with both danger and excitement. I was finally living a true and authentic existence.

Two years passed, and the old matriarch died. We buried her body back into the earth from which she came. As we administered their ancient funeral rites, tears filled my eyes. It was not the nature of these people to feel saddened by death, yet I was feeling these strong emotions swell up from inside of me. I didn’t know why I cried. Maybe it was for her, a person who had taken a chance on a stranger in a land that should know nothing of kindness. Maybe it was for the dead world I would never be able to return to, or, more unbelievably, I had become part of this community of prehistoric savages. These were people no educated man or woman would have anything in common with. The only reason I joined them initially was because I felt I had no choice but to stay with them to survive. It was the easy and right choice. It was preposterous on the face of it that a fifty-second-century woman could fit in with a society of illiterate cavemen. While they had been slowly changing and becoming more similar to me thanks to my methodical modern education techniques, I hadn’t noticed that I had become one of them.

The week after the matriarch’s death, I joined a hunting party with Ivan. For the first time, I felt like an equal to him. He no longer needed to guide or teach me. We silently signaled to each other as we carefully made our way across the landscape searching for prey. I walked inaudibly across the muddy ground. When I saw a doe in the distance, I sighted my bow onto its head. I did not miss—my arrow flew true, and the animal faltered. Ivan ran quickly and finished it off by slitting its throat, putting it out of its misery. It felt good to be of use to the community and finally self-sufficient. Ivan and I held hands as we said a prayer over it to guide its soul to heaven. Ivan had grown in my esteem over the last two years. He was good with the children and quick to laugh. He was an accomplished hunter but never boastful. Walking back to the campground with our kill, I thought of our future possibilities. Was it possible to love a man as primitive as Ivan? In the past, I would have said no, but my heart had changed. Walking through the silent woods, I gave him a smile. He returned it with one of his own.

As we made our way home, we both saw smoke in the distance. We ran as quickly as we could, hoping only for the best, but preparing for the worst. I was under no illusion that there were no other tribes who would mean us harm. What greeted me was a grisly sight. Half the tribe lay dead or wounded on the ground. Surrounding the remaining members were five men, led by Andre, the remnants of my broken society. In their hands appeared to be rudimentary spears made with chert arrowheads. Their bodies appeared emaciated and covered in scars. It was clear what I needed to do.

“Ivan, take my bow and give me your knife. Stay hidden behind the tree.” He shook his head in disagreement. Anger marred his usually placid face, but he listened. I hid the knife carefully.

Spasiba, my champions. You have saved me from my captivity.” The starving wolves turned around. I saw hunger and lust in their eyes.

“Sara, we thought you were lost. We are the last of the group. The others did not…survive.” Andre approached slowly, covered in the blood of my people.

“And what killed them?” I asked innocently. The sharp look in his eyes made it clear. I trembled as he walked towards me. Two others lowered their weapons and joined him. When he reached to grab me, I slaughtered the first animal as I had been taught. The other two next to him dropped dead with a look of surprise as arrows ripped through their carotid arteries. The final two started to flee. They did not make it far from their former group of captives. I walked over to Ivan and kissed him. I was now truly free.

“And with that my children, you know the rest of my story. In time, I became the new matriarch of this tribe. I am now old, although I was already ancient when you were young. I tell you this story now as this is my last winter’s thaw. I am Mother to a tribe of men that will take over this land. To know the future is to know the past. It is all just one rerun.”

The Detective

I put on my clean suit to examine the body lying in the refrigerated meat locker of Pork Pals, LLC. The corpse sat frozen, with both eyes open in the terror of rigor mortis. The victim’s face still showed surprise that she was dead. I hated it when they stared at me from beyond the grave. The apparent physical age of the unfortunate victim was twenty to thirty years. The ID of her body would confirm her actual age tomorrow. The murder had been done cleanly, with no obvious violence to the victim’s body. This was no crime of passion. Only a sociopath would kill someone in such a cold, methodical fashion. The only obvious injury on her body was a small contusion emanating from a puncture wound on her left bicep. Looking more closely, the bruise appeared to be from a hypodermic needle. My working hypothesis was that the victim had probably been carried into this meat locker after she had been drugged. She had then been forced to give a “blood donation” while unconscious. The injury’s discoloration indicated she was still alive at this point. After completing his artwork, the killer then asphyxiated her while she was asleep. I looked up and stared at the crimson message written with copious amounts of the victim’s blood, “Evil’s Agent”. That was an obvious message coming from a cold-blooded killer. Who else would commit a homicide besides an emissary of the Devil? At least this murder would be interesting, as opposed to all the other cases I now saw in this new gilded age. I stared at the purple, puke-faced, blond-haired rookie next to me. I didn’t understand why they would send a toddler to do a man’s job. He was sixty years my junior, although we were biologically the same age of twenty-eight. I had long since retired from the department before this pup had even thought of donning a badge. He started to run towards the exit of the warehouse. He didn’t quite make it to the door before he vomited on a hanging sow. I carefully sidestepped the puddle and stepped outside before the stink could penetrate the double barrier that protected me. A few minutes later, James hobbled out and joined me. On his face was a look of abject embarrassment.

“That was my first time seeing a dead body.” Of course it was the first corpse he had ever seen. There hadn’t been a murder in fifty years.

“It’s OK, kid. The first time is the hardest. You will get over it.”

“I hope this is the last time. I didn’t sign up for this when I joined the force. Death is just so horrible.” I started to laugh.

“People used to croak all the time for all sorts of shitty reasons. Eating too many slices of bacon would cause you to die from heart attacks. Alcohol would give you cirrhosis. Breathing the city air would give you lung cancer. I’m sure she didn’t suffer too much.” The horrified look on the kid’s face showed that he did not appreciate the sentiment. Apparently he was a sensitive soul. I guess I should have expected as much given that I was the last homicide detective this city had seen.

“I’m sure this is an aberration, and it won’t happen again,” I lied. “Call me when the forensics team finishes examining the body.” I didn’t expect them to find anything of note given the meticulous nature of the killer. It would take them several days to figure out this conclusion. I took off my suit and entered my car. I told it to take me home.

Society had completely changed since I was a boy. No longer would anyone need to watch their mother suffer through stage four cancer, or to watch their father grow old and grey, succumbing to pneumonia. Violent crimes had been eliminated through the automation of manufacturing, which deprived people of economic motives for committing felonies. Any stray antisocial thoughts were dealt with by a legion of psychotherapists. Any antisocial actions were acted out in the safe confines of the net. Humanity was finally melding into one global organism with things like race, class, beauty, and other ancient concepts losing their meaning. Of course, there were still the mundane crimes of passion, such as a cheating spouse (for the degenerates who still made love the old-fashioned way), but I’m certain that line of my business would dissolve soon enough. I exited the car and opened the door to my empty apartment.

It was a spartan place to call a home, which suited me just fine. It had a bed, a desk, a barely working computer that used an actual monitor, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. The kitchen was no longer a necessity, since everyone ate the newly developed bars. In fact, the meat locker where that poor girl had died was one of the last ones in the city. We lived in a world of vegans. Wouldn’t the hippies of yesterday be pleased? Carnivores like me were going the way of the dinosaurs. Of course, it was the only practical solution to overpopulation and a world made up of seventy-one percent ocean. Pigs couldn’t be taught to swim (at least for not very long), and with the addition of essential minerals and vitamins, nutritionally-balanced algae was the only way to go. Most people ate the bars while using the net to evoke the flavors of yesteryear. In the comfort of VR, you could be anyone and taste anything. I still preferred to eat real food that would temporarily clog my arteries. I opened a can of soup and walked into the shower to wash off the sweat from a hard day of work.

I began by shaving my head and then the rest of my body. I scrubbed with a metallic sponge and hot, soapy water until my skin shone red. The shrinks called it mysophobia brought on by years of stress. I called it staying clean. There weren’t too many cases like me anymore. I was a historical oddity that they wanted to cure in a world where disease, death, and prolonged mental illness were all a foreign language. I stepped out of the bathroom and ate my now warm soup, savoring the little bits of real chicken meat still present in it. I spoke the Lord’s Prayer as I walked over to my bed. I lay down and turned on my neural interface as I fell into sleep. It was a small concession, forced upon me by the shrinks, to avoid having the nightmares that raged in my head every evening. I became blissfully unconscious.

A woke up with a start when my phone rang. I reached for the handle that didn’t exist anymore and then, realizing my mistake, tapped the side of my head.

“Johnson, Private Investigations.”

“Johnson, this is Patterson.” I wiped the sleep from my eyes and saw that it was the kid.

”Forensics came back negative. We located the name and address of the victim. Her name is Stephanie Wallace. We have notified her family of her passing. Would you like to interview them? We have started a standard media blackout on this case, since we don’t want to alarm the general population and increase society’s psycho-score. We still not have deciphered the meaning of the words left at the crime scene. I am doing a search for any deviants in a twenty-mile radius of where she lived. We will bring them in for questioning.” The kid seemed much more composed than the last time I saw him.

“I’ll meet you over there in an hour. Send the details to my vehicle.” What a world we lived in where your psychological profile was put to a computer to be scored along with everyone else’s and then charted against some perceived norm. Go too far from the bell curve and you would be forced into weekly therapy, or even worse, be locked up for your own mental health and safety.

Two hours later, I was sitting in front of Mr. and Mrs. Wallace. They lived in an unremarkable house located on a quiet street in the suburbs. Their faces were drawn and gloomy, something one didn’t see much anymore in these times of perpetual happiness. Tragedy no longer invaded everyday life like it had just a lifetime ago. I sat next to Patterson who had arrived earlier. I evaluated the victim’s parents. Mrs. Wallace looked lifeless and numb to the outside world. I had seen that occur before where a person was so overwhelmed with emotion that they effectively shut down. Mr. Wallace appeared severely sleep-deprived and disheveled, but his eyes held a gaze when I looked at them. He would be the party that I would have to question.

“Mr. and Mrs. Wallace, I am a private investigator working with Detective Patterson to solve this horrible crime committed against your daughter. Honestly there have not been very many leads. We are rounding up the recognizable deviants in the area, but we are hoping a discussion with you will help generate some new information. Please tell me about Stephanie.”

Mr. Wallace started weeping immediately at the mention of her name. It was uncomfortable to watch this man break down in front of me. I had spent the last fifty years trying to get rid of my strong emotions to be free of the rage (and its unpleasant triggering effects) that overcame me from working this job. Part of the reason for my retirement was that I had started to stray away from society’s P(50) and would be in danger of being categorized in the red zone. Once you were considered a part of the red zone, it was nearly impossible to leave it. The inevitable conclusion would be enjoying a lifetime vacation with your fellow mental undesirables on the Marquesas Islands located three thousand miles from the nearest continental land mass.

After a few minutes, Mr. Wallace composed himself and answered, “She was our only child and the light of our life. You should know how difficult it is to get permission to have children given how many of us there are now. It almost takes an act of World Congress to do things legally.”

“Is there any reason why anyone she knew would have cause to harm her? What would drive someone to target her specifically?”

“Nothing that I can think of. She lived a perfectly harmless life. In fact, she was a nurse at CRI. All she did was help save people’s lives.” I stifled a laugh to avoid being rude. No one lived a truly innocent life. My job made me certain of that fact.

“CRI, isn’t that where they keep all those brains on ice? I’m not sure that is exactly a life worth saving.”

“Yes. That is correct. Not everyone had the fortune of being born when we were.”

“Nor the inclination to stay in the real world like the rest of us. When was the last time you saw or spoke with Stephanie? Was she behaving strangely at all?” Mr. Wallace turned away from me and gazed at a family portrait on the wall of their living room. I cleared my throat loudly to force him to look back into my eyes.

“We talked with her two weeks ago. She didn’t mention anything especially noteworthy. She was her normal, friendly, outgoing self.”

“Did she have any new boyfriends or relationships that you are aware of?”

“She had mentioned a new man in her life, but that wasn’t unusual given she was an extrovert and attracted a lot of different new people around her. She didn’t say his name or anything like that. Stephanie did express that he seemed to understand and appreciate her work. I think many people share the same bias as you, that a life in CRI isn’t a life worth living or saving.” Mr. Wallace was certainly correct about my feelings on being turned into a brain floating in a jar. Could you really consider any of those people housed there as alive? They didn’t even have a pulse.

“Thank you. I will follow up on finding this gentleman. One more question, did she ever disappoint you?” Patterson glared at me. I continued, “Maybe it would be better to start over with a new child?”

Mr. Wallace’s face changed into an ugly shade of red, and Mrs. Wallace, awakened out of her torpor, screamed at me to get out of her house. Patterson appeared outside a minute later, after muttering some apologies on my behalf, equally fuming.

“Why did you have to ask that last question? That was extremely rude and frankly unnecessary.”

“I wanted to eliminate them as suspects for this murder since we don’t have much to go on. Most killings are not completely random, and there usually is a connection of some sort to the victim. Unexpected questions throw people off guard and let me see what they are truly thinking.” Patterson snorted. “Come on, kid, you should know this by now without me explaining. This is 101 of crime investigation.”

“I know what you’re doing. I just think you get too much satisfaction out of it.”

“Read me my life story some other time. We need to find this mystery man. He may be the only lead to take us where we need to go with this case.” I walked to my car and realized that I hadn’t gone to confession this week. I had eliminated all the physical dirt on me twice daily, but my spirit needed the same deep cleansing, and I was way overdue. I told the vehicle to bring me to the Apostle of the Holy Mother.

From the exterior, the forgotten building was empty and desolate-looking. The stained glass was coated with a thin layer of grime that seemed to permeate the very soul of the structure. With the promise of eternal life no longer needed, the business of being a priest was steadily in decline. Who knew how many sheep were still in this Shepherd’s flock? I had been going to the Apostle of the Holy Mother since I was a little kid. Old habits die hard, and someone in my line of work needed an outlet. I knocked on the door, and Reverend Roberts opened it.

Reverend Roberts was my original boyhood priest and a man who looked both old and stern due to the pills being invented when he was in his late fifties. I don’t think he could help the old-looking part, but his demeanor could have used some improvement. Anyone who perpetually looked that unhappy would not do well in selling the Lord’s virtues to hearts that needed salvation. He ushered me in with a nod, and I followed him into the confessional.

“Father, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will. It has been three weeks since my last confession. I, a poor sinner, plead guilty before God of all sins. I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My worship and prayers have faltered. There are those whom I have hurt and failed to help. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed.”

“What sins trouble you, my son?”

“I have been heartless to a husband and wife whose only daughter was murdered. I have become callous to the deaths of others. I have become wrathful when I think of what I will do when I find the murderer. I am sorry for all of this and ask for grace.”

“God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith. Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”

“Yes.”

“In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I absolve you of all your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As penance, say seven Hail Mary’s. Amen.”

I walked out of the confessional and was joined shortly after by the reverend.

“How goes the evangelist business?” I asked him. “Any new members join?”

“No. The only people who still come regularly are ones like you. No one needs the promise of life everlasting anymore. Being right with the Lord is not a priority if you never plan on meeting him.”

“And what type of person am I?” I was genuinely curious.

“You are the last of the old school, like me. We are two of a kind that doesn’t exist anymore.”

“Interesting observation. Let’s discuss it at my next visit.” It was time I made my way to the Cryogenic Research Institute.

As I entered the building, an involuntary shudder overcame me. Apparently, one of the side-effects of keeping people frozen at negative one hundred and thirty-five Celsius was the need for visitors to wear a parka. That would be everyone except the brains sitting in their stainless steel canisters. Brains don’t have nociceptors, so they don’t feel pain, or hunger, or much of anything else physically for that matter. Emotions, though—that was a different animal. Those needed to be tended to. Fortunately, almost all of them were living in their own individually chosen versions of “reality”, so they were too busy to feel sad, angry, bored, or any other of the problems that plague the mortal condition. However, existing in your own artificial heaven, without the ability to end it all if you were having a continuously bad trip, did not appeal to me. In front of me, I saw a very attractive blonde secretary wearing a miniskirt. Her devotion to fashion was apparently stronger than her need to be warm. I smiled and caught her attention. I decided to just get straight to the point and flashed my private investigator license.

“My name is Detective Johnson. I have been hired as a consultant to the police department to investigate the murder of one of your colleagues, Stephanie Wallace. I need to speak to the person in charge of this facility.” The woman’s face immediately began to contort as she processed what I had just said. She must have known the victim. Her carefully put-together visage turned an interesting color of sea green as she ran from her desk to what looked like the washroom; she was clearly a delicate woman. While I signed my name into the guest log, I looked around and found a display case with a skull in it. It must have come from one of the clients.

After some time passed, I was ushered into the office of the director of the institute, Hendrik Dawson. I sat down on a chair facing him. The room was modestly furnished with a large, metal desk that the director sat behind. He was a tall, strongly built man with burgundy hair. The director had what looked to be a moderately enlarged head, which was a not-so-subtle sign that his parents chose to amplify the Cro-Magnon genes in his body, a fad that died a few decades ago. He looked extremely collected for someone who was about to talk to a private investigator about a murder. This made me immediately suspicious.

“Mr. Dawson, your employee, Stephanie Wallace, was slain in cold blood. I am looking for any information you can provide. Did any of her actions or conversations strike you or others as unusual?”

“Bill, this is a real tragedy.” I ignored his breach of etiquette. “You know that Stephanie was our best employee. Nothing really strikes me as worth sharing with you. Everyone loved her here, but that should be obvious. Was her brain not salvageable?”

“No. She had been oxygen-deprived for too many hours; living perpetually with extreme brain damage would not be a good way to spend eternity. This won’t be a soul that you can save.” Mr. Dawson, upon hearing this news, put his hands onto his temples, covering his face. I wasn’t sure if he was genuinely distressed or pretending for my benefit.

Looking around Dawson’s office, I saw an original picture with the now-famous founders of the CRI. This institute was the first one of its kind back in the day before numerous copycats appeared. Long before the pills, this was the only way to avoid the grim reaper. The process had not been cheap, so only the richest lived on without bodies until cloning could be perfected. Even once they solved that final problem, many of the residents here preferred being masters of their own domains versus returning to the ugly realities of daily life. I turned back to Mr. Dawson, who appeared to have collected himself.

“What else can I do for you? I know this is a time to grieve for all of us.”

I considered what information I could get out of this man that would be helpful to my investigation.

“Can you give me a complete list of all the people who were in this establishment over the last three months? I would like to examine any possible connections to Stephanie.”

“Of course, I will send it over right away.”

“Out of curiosity, how do you manage keeping all these floating brains happy?”

“It works on the same principle as your neural interface. We directly connect to the cortex and then stimulate an artificial reality through our computer banks. It is hardly distinguishable from living in the real world, but we can control what they see, hear, and feel through the appropriate application of electrical impulses. We try to follow the last will and testament of anyone who ends up in this facility to honor their final wishes.” This man had absolute power over thousands of “people’s” lives. Someone with that type of authority probably did not take kindly to dissent. Was that a motive for killing Stephanie? Had she disagreed with something he had ordered her to do?

“So even though they live in paradise, you are for all intents and purposes their God? What happens when someone differs with your interpretation of your clients’ desires?”

“I like to consider myself as their servant and not the other way around. I never know when I’ll be the one stored in a stainless steel bottle full of cerebral fluid, so I take my responsibility very seriously. All of our patients’ directives are reviewed by a three-person committee, which I am a member of, prior to implementation. It would be an unacceptable horror to sentence any of our patients to an eternity they did not desire.”

“Interesting. Thanks for your help.” I stood up, and Mr. Dawson did also.

“My pleasure. I hope you find the monster who did this. I know it must be difficult being assigned to this case. Please accept my condolences.”

I left the building convinced that the director had been involved somehow in this crime or, at minimum, was hiding some key facts that I needed. The way he behaved in such an overly familiar fashion with me seemed unusual for a man who had just heard such traumatic news. Just the concept of untimely death, let alone an actual occurrence of it, usually drove most normal people into hysterics due to its rarity.

I drove home with more questions than answers. By the time I had exited the shower, my requested list had appeared on my computer. At least the man was being reasonably cooperative. I opened the file and was immediately filled with irritation. The fool had included not only the staff and visitors, but all the people stored at the facility. The list was over fifty thousand people long. It would take me hours to analyze it properly. I would get to work on it tomorrow.

“Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb , Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,

now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” I fell asleep quickly into another dreamless night.

The phone woke me from my slumber. There was apparently no rest for the wicked. I realized it was Patterson. I looked over at the clock next to my bed and determined that I had overslept by several hours.

“There has been another death. Meet me at the CRI. The director is dead.”

I went into the bathroom and started shaving my too-thick beard. So much for my hunch. If the director wasn’t the murderer, then who could it be? Making my way back to the institute, a feeling of déjà vu overcame me as I pulled up to it in my car. How many murders had I seen committed in faceless buildings like this one? When did this become normal for me? I was right to leave the force when I did. I had seen too much and was getting too close to the edge. One more dead body on my conscience was one too many. This was going to be my last case, but I would finish it on my own terms. This psychopath would go down. The entrance to the CRI was already covered by a police veil. The building had been emptied. No need to upset anyone with the truth of what happened inside here. An illusion of complete safety was a necessity to keep society’s profile pure white. Patterson met me at the door while I put on my suit.

The body hung from the ceiling fan. Similar to the previous case, he looked like he had died peacefully. The blades of the fan were slowly spinning from the convection currents that formed naturally due to the temperature differences in the building. I touched his chest. It was ice cold. He had expired many hours ago, based on the temperature, meaning his brain also was unsalvageable. What a great irony given his choice of profession and the fact that he was only one hundred feet away from being saved for eternity.

“Why would the director commit suicide? He was in charge of a life extension project,” Patterson asked.

“You shouldn’t make assumptions based on first impressions. This isn’t a suicide,” I said with an exasperated tone. “Look at the markings on his neck and his body. He didn’t struggle at all while he was asphyxiating. He clearly was placed there after he was killed, the same as with Stephanie Wallace.”

Looking closely at the director’s face, frozen in rigor mortis, I felt guilty. I had just suspected this man too readily, and now he had been murdered by what appeared to be a serial killer. His death was on me. This butcher was my responsibility, and I had failed to find him. I examined the victim’s pockets and found a note written in pencil. The note read, “Salvaged soul—God save us all!”

“It looks like we were left another clue. This psycho must get off on torturing the police. On the other hand, maybe he just wants to get caught. Did you check the security cameras here for any footage?”

Patterson sighed. “They’ve been wiped. I filed an electronic warrant and also logged into the computer network. It appears there had been some heavy network traffic originating from somewhere offsite, but nothing specific I could pinpoint.”

“Did you check if he had any sort of inappropriate relationships with Stephanie or anyone else of note?”

“There didn’t appear to be any evidence of that in his records or emails.”

“Take the counter sign-in book. I just forwarded you the list the director sent me of all the previous visitors from the last few months. Look for some leads there. We need to review every person who has visited this facility. Call me if you find anything else.” I walked slowly to my car, feeling a mixture of emotions. I was excited to be so intellectually challenged by this case. I was angry that two innocent people lay dead. I was confused by the unclear motives of the killer. These people had not been robbed or involved in some torrid love affair. The victims didn’t seem like they would be targets for any particular sort of revenge. Why was the murderer leaving all sorts of strange clues? I was suffering from emotional exhaustion, and I knew my profile was getting closer and closer to where it would no longer be redeemable. I made my way home and finished the routine I didn’t have time in the morning to complete. This was followed by many hours of drinking, where I attempted to assuage my feelings by trying to find the bottom of a one-liter bottle of Scotch. I decided I would try sleeping the old-fashioned way. Sleep did not come easily.

I woke up in the morning with a horrible headache. As I sucked down two NSAIDs, I heard a loud banging on the door.

“It’s Patterson. Open up.”

“Stop the racket. Why are you here this early in the morning?” I let him in. In his hand was the guest book.

“Can you explain to me why your name is listed twice in this book? I spoke with the secretary. This was not the first time you had visited the CRI. You have been there multiple times before based on the list you sent to me. You had been there to visit Stephanie.”

Apparently I was now going to be interrogated by this gumshoe. “I have no idea what you are talking about. I’d never met any of these people before until your office called me to consult on this case.”

“Can you account for what you were doing the three days between the murder of Stephanie Wallace and when you met her family? What about the two days between you visiting Mr. Dawson to question him and then his death?” Now I was confused. It had only been a day between the first murder and my meeting the family. Wasn’t Dawson also murdered the following day after I had met him? I had been so engrossed in my work I hadn’t bothered to check the calendar. I did find it a little bit strange that the forensics report had been turned around overnight, but I had assumed they weren’t that busy given the lack of recent crime. I had concluded that Dawson had been murdered immediately after I had left his office, but I now saw the timeline didn’t make any sense.

“There has been no DNA or any other traceable physical evidence on the bodies. Only someone skilled in homicide could pull that off. You are the most knowledgeable person on that subject in the entire city. I checked into your profile. It was bordering on the red zone before you retired. You would know how to game the system better than anyone else.”

“I don’t know what is going on, but I did not kill anyone. I am sure there is a logical explanation for what is happening. You need to back off before someone gets hurt.”

Patterson pulled out his gun. “Are you threatening me? You are under arrest for the suspicion of killing both Stephanie Wallace and Hendrik Dawson.” I put my hands into the air, in a sign of contrition, hoping to calm Patterson down. In reality, I was waiting for him to reach down for his restraints. The second he did, I clocked him as hard as I could in face and knocked him out. I dragged his prone body onto my bed and locked him up with his own handcuffs. I put his gun under my waistband. I needed time to think. I went into my medicine cabinet and found a bottle of valium that the doctor had prescribed to me for anxiety. I emptied a few ampules into Patterson’s mouth. That would keep him sleeping for a while.

Based on what I had been told, I did sound like the most probable candidate to be the murderer. How did I lose multiple days and not even notice? Why had I visited the clinic multiple times before? The director’s familiarity with me, on what I thought was our first meeting, now made sense. He had known me. He had offered me his condolences. Not condolences for the family. Was I Stephanie’s mysterious boyfriend? That seemed a little farfetched, but maybe years of repressing my anger had done this. However, I would have snapped before if that were the case. My profile was never a clean white, even before I became a detective. How could I not remember killing those people? Maybe I did need to be locked up. Something did not make sense, though. If I was the killer, I doubt I would be leaving clues that would get me caught. That seemed even more out of character than me being a psychopath. Whenever I did anything, I always fully committed to it.

I needed to evaluate the two clues I had been left. First, it was clear that the killer wanted to make a statement or to be caught, since there was no other benefit in leaving behind messages at a crime scene. The killer had written two declarations: “Evil’s Agent” and “Salvaged soul—God save us all.” Ignoring for a second the likely possibility that I’d had a psychotic break, I decided to go back to basics. I had told the kid that most killings are not completely random, and there is usually a connection of some sort to the victim. The two commonalities in this case were the victims’ involvement in the life extension industry and that they both knew me. Invoking God’s help and believing yourself to be evil’s agent were signs of the killer being religious. That indicated a motive, but not a suspect. What did a salvaged soul have to do with God’s grace? Maybe the two statements were somehow related. There had been a dash in the second clue. Then it hit me. The two words were related.

I carried Patterson on my back and threw him in the car. He woke up again when we reached our destination. He was not happy, to say the least.

“Not only did you kill two people, but now you’re kidnapping an officer of the law. What happened to you? You were a decorated veteran, and now you are worse than scum.”

I looked him in the eye and said, “We don’t know if I killed those two people. I am a likely suspect from the evidence, I will give you that, but what was my purpose in murdering them? I don’t remember doing it. I had no disagreements with either of them. Haven’t we discussed how you need to look below the surface instead of jumping to a conclusion?”

“You are just a sick fuck!” spat out Patterson.

“I think you need to calm down and think rationally. Follow me inside. If you aren’t satisfied with my confession, then I will give you back your gun and you can arrest me right there.” Not having much of a choice, Patterson grudgingly followed me in.

As I walked into the church, Reverend Frank Roberts nodded my way. I sat Patterson down on a pew. I pulled out his gun and motioned Roberts into the familiar booth.

“I didn’t really understand the two messages you sent, until I considered the second one in isolation. The two separated parts of the message were anagrams of each other. God[] (did not) save us all from salvaged souls, so you did. Knowing that, the first statement you left became clear. You were an evangelist, but instead you became evil’s agent. The only person linked to me that had anything to do with religion was you. You killed two innocent people.”

“I think you are misunderstanding something. I have never killed anybody.”

“That isn’t possible. I know you did it. It is the only thing that makes sense.”

“For someone who was a detective, you are being very dense. How could I have the skills to harm anyone, let alone kill them? I am just an aged priest.”

“So I did this?”

“That is what it seems like. You had all the knowledge and physical strength to do people injury. We both know you were always one step from being in the red and out of control. I imagine you have a few nights you can’t remember. Possibly, you were repressing the memories of what you have done. You seemed especially emotionally disturbed when you visited me last time to discuss Stephanie’s death.”

“I never told you her name.”

“I’m certain you did.”

“No, I didn’t. That I remember. Now we both know that only one person will be walking out of this booth. Do you really want to do so without giving confession? Now that I think about it, Mr. Dawson mentioned to me how he could control what someone sees, hears, or feels through electrical impulses. Tell me, how does one do that?”

“Well, I have had over a hundred years in this hell, and one does have hobbies. If you focus long enough on any task, God will deliver his rewards to you.”

“I should never have gotten that damn neural interface. You hacked into my mind and made me your executioner. Tell me what could possibly justify committing not just one, but two mortal sins?”

“Using you to kill someone else isn’t technically murder in the good book. I just put the ideas deep in your mind and then erased your memory of them. You did all the rest of it by yourself with your own two hands.”

“I had all of the necessary skills and knowledge that you could use. You begrudged others having attained an artificial heaven while you lived here, tired and forgotten on earth. You couldn’t even commit suicide, since that would be another mortal sin.”

“It looks like you do understand.” He smiled.

“God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith. Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”

“Yes.”

I pulled out my gun and put two bullets straight through his brain.

“I don’t forgive you, but maybe God will.”

The reverend’s body fell to the floor with a loud thump. I walked over to Patterson, uncuffed him, and returned his gun.

“So what do I do next, Johnson?” he asked.

“I don’t know about you, but I am going on a permanent island vacation.”

The Bunker Man

The Bunker Man was ready. He knew the only logical conclusion was that humanity would be ending soon. He smelled the clean air of the pine forest around him for the last time and closed the hatch above his head. No one would find him here, in this remote mountainous corner of New Mexico. He had chosen this area specifically for its lack of human population and high elevation, which would keep him safe from the quadruple threats of mechanical, chemical, radiological, and biological weapons of war. His only neighbors within one hundred miles were the scientists who ran the radio telescopes of the Very Large Array. Their mission was to explore the fabric of the universe and to send messages to aliens in outer space. His mission was to get the last laugh.

He entered his bunker for the final time and ran through his checklist. The computer that would regulate his sleeping and waking was fully operational, the cryogenic chamber was stocked with enough liquid nitrogen to last him thousands of years, and he had stored two hundred years’ worth of canned food. He had stashed most of his favorite dishes, but given the shelf-life requirements, there wasn’t much in the way of variety. He loaded his shotgun with 00 buckshot. On the miniscule chance someone did locate him, they would not live to tell about it. He smiled into the one mirror he had and stared at his pale, clear, colorless eyes. In his reflection, he saw more of the Major than his mother. He had never met the military man who had accidentally impregnated his mother and disappeared when he was one year old. He had been a natural birth and therefore, forever, an unplanned abnormality. He should never have been born in an age of selective eugenics, where every gene was measured and weighed before being put to use.

He remembered how he had been ostracized throughout his youth, with the stupid little kids gaping at his pigmentless skin. It had made him tough and also angry, very angry. Now, he would survive while they died. Living well was the best revenge. He decided to celebrate by having his first meal as the future last man on earth. He savored the flavor of the canned tuna (a once common fish that was now functionally extinct) as if it were a fine wine. The taste lingered in his mouth as he spoke out loud to his only compatriot.

“Computer, how long until the world is over?”

“The world will be over five billion years from now when the sun becomes a red giant and the earth is enveloped by it.” The Bunker Man did not appreciate the computer’s literal interpretation of his question. It did not understand context.

“Computer, when will man go extinct?”

“Unknown. Man is not predictable. Too many unknown variables are involved in calculating an accurate date. Please specify question with more inputs.”

The Bunker Man sighed. The computer would be no help. He would have to work on its programming. One thing he was guaranteed was plenty of time to do just that. He walked over to his meager bathroom and brushed his teeth, his water supply fed by a deep, subterranean reservoir. No reason to have bad breath while living on into eternity. He plugged the computer into the cryogenic unit.

“Wake me up in one hundred years. I will begin my work then.” He went to sleep with a smile on his face.

A Slight Change

I woke up from the nightmare with my head pounding. My body glistened with sweat that was cold to the touch. You would think, with all the advancements in modern medical science, headaches and night terrors would be a thing of the past. The worst part was that I didn’t even remember what I did to deserve it. I looked into the mirror and saw the same grizzled but youthful face that I was used to. Out of some sick habit I had started ages ago to amuse myself, I checked the date on the ancient computer display. It still, and would always, read December 31st, 1999. It was stuck on the same date perpetually due to a dead army programmer’s “quick” fix (which incidentally outlived him by hundreds of years) to the ancient Y2K problem. That computer, despite its lack of feelings, was the only one who knew how I felt about living in this oversized tin can of baked beans called Silo Twenty-Three. Next to it sat the one reminder I was allowed of home, a picture of my soon-to-be wife and our powder-white son, Paul. Every day here was regimented to the minutest degree, doomed to be the same, over and over again, inside this metal coffin. I guess I should have known what I signed up for after I purposely flunked out of my psych major in the second year.

Although the case studies of Phineas Gage, Henry Molaison, Anne O, Little Hans, and others had been interesting to read about, I never really got the practical applications from these stories. Personality changes, memory loss, and Oedipus complexes did not translate well to someone focused on the here and now. I liked to take things at face value, without any subtext, which made me a natural opposite to a Freudian and, in theory, a perfect fit for the service. Now I lived a disconnected, underground life, and it was getting to be a little bit too much. The monotony made me forget what day of the week it was, since every day was identical to the last. Seasons of the year had no meaning in this sixty-eight degree, twenty percent humidity, artificially lit structure. I checked the notches I had been making on my wooden bed, the only thing in my room not made out of gun metal. There were one hundred and seventy-eight of them. I had two more days until I could go on leave. It would be a pleasure to add one more at the end of this day. It had been a long stint, six months, and I was ready to go home. I walked into the shower, turned it to maximum temperature, and got out my razor to shave. The hot water helped soothe the pain in my head. I then went to my closet, located my uniform, and tightened it up. It had taken years to become a sergeant major, and looking neat was part of the job description. I opened my desk, found my watch and pistol, grabbed The Briefcase, and walked out the door to get some chow.

Walking into the familiar, small kitchen, I walked over to the food synthesizer, the most modern technology present in this entire antiquated facility. I guess they had to make a concession somewhere, and the lack of a chef necessitated this fine device. I ordered my usual steak and eggs and watched as my food was printed out onto my plate. The taste was bland and inoffensive like the “coffee” I drank, but probably full of nutrients. Compared to real food it tasted like shit, but I guess they couldn’t keep a farm down here. I forced down each mouthful, knowing it would be the last time I would eat this crap. The military didn’t know I would be leaving after this stint. I was tired and ready to start a new chapter in my life. I had served a long time, through multiple contracts, and they didn’t have the power to keep me here any longer. I gave up halfway through the meal and threw the rest of it into the trash to be incinerated. I looked at my wrist. The time was 6:55 AM. It was the appropriate hour to do my daily walk and inspection of the silo.

As I walked out the door and began my slow march down the ten-story stairwell, each step I took on the perforated metal walkways clanged a soft echo across the circular walls. The sound, which had become grating over the last two weeks, now broadcasted like an amorphous symphony for a soon-to-be-freed man. As I inspected each station on my route, technicians stood at attention and saluted me. All the faces seemed new, but that wasn’t unusual as this week all the crews were switching shifts. In the distance, hiding in the back, I spotted a single familiar-looking face.

“Harry, I haven’t seen you in ages. How long has it been?”

“It’s been a long time, Frank. You haven’t seen me since college,” he responded. “You look exactly the same as back then.”

“That isn’t entirely true,” I laughed. “I didn’t realize you had also signed on for a stint. What are you doing here? I guess you ended up graduating, unlike me?”

“Job prospects weren’t the greatest for a psychologist in those years. Too many happy people, I guess. The programs they put into place were too effective. No need to add to the medical staff when the sheeple’s profile is pure white. It looks like you still have that watch you won from me at that poker game.”

“Yeah, it is my only real memento from my civilian years. I like to think those were happier times. Well, hopefully, I will have more than this watch soon.”

“Do you mind if I take a look at it?”

“Sure. No problem.” I handed the watch over to Harry. He flipped it over, took out a small knife, and quickly carved the initials HM in small letters into the back of the watch.

“Here you go. I thought it needed an inscription. That way you can remember when you see the watch now. Look at the time, its 8:00 AM.”

“It’s time for me to go to the control station. It was good seeing you after all these years.” We saluted each other, and I made my way to command.

I walked in and surveyed the surroundings. Everything appeared in order, except the people in the room standing at attention. There were three youthful-looking men, but all of mankind looked youthful nowadays. Age wasn’t an indication of experience. I read their names on their lapels, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor. I noted that they were junior to me.

“Where is Jansen? He is in charge of the evening watch.”

Tyler responded, “We have relieved Private Jansen, sir. His rotation is over and he is on days off. “

“Why was I not informed that he was leaving? He is in my direct line of command.”

Tyler shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. This is my first time serving in this silo.”

“What about you Taylor? Polk?” Both nodded their heads. This was definitely not standard operating, but the brass had always made rash decisions. That was modern military life. I guess it didn’t really matter. I would be gone soon and it would no longer be my problem. I decided that I should give these greenhorns a little razz and dazzle to make them feel like they belong here.

“Given this is your first tour here, you should have been forced to memorize the history of this outpost. Let me see if you are up to snuff since I can’t have a bunch of ignorant subordinates deciding the fate of civilization. What is the purpose of the silos, Tyler?”

“To protect the federation from external threats, Sir.”

“And why do we need protection? Aren’t we all at harmony? Violence has been bred out of the human animal.”

“We do indeed live in peaceful times, the longest period of quiet since the Pax Romana. The government wanted to dismantle us. This cannot happen as we are the shepherds of humanity.”

“How long have the silos been maintained, Polk?”

“The silos have been in operation for many hundreds of years. We have been ever-watchful, ready to retaliate against the enemy, sir.”

“That is a rather inexact answer. You should know that they have been in operation four hundred and fifty-one years. Have standards slipped so much that you haven’t memorized the manual?”

“My apologies, sir. I will refresh myself on the text immediately upon my shift being over.”

“Please do so. Who knows of the silos’ existence, Taylor?”

“Only the chosen few, sir. Rumors exist, but we are ghosts to the rest of the world. No one can ever find out about our purpose, for the knowledge itself would destabilize the world we live in. The illusion of safety needs to be maintained. The service will exist for eternity until the day it is needed comes.”

Their answers were satisfactory enough. They would make good patriotic replacements for me when I retired to my new life with my newborn and wife. I no longer would be forced to continuously move around between different outposts while eating processed slop. I would have that single-story house with a white picket fence and a dog that I was promised when I joined. I’d always been partial to collies. The alarms went off.

“Sit-rep, Polk. Why are the alarms going off?” Looking at the screens, I already knew the answer.

“Four incoming type three MIRV missiles from NeoEurope. Launch site is within the boundaries of the old city of London. Ten minutes until impact.” I set my watch for ten minutes. This did not make sense. Who would launch an attack out of the blue, let alone with both biological and nuclear payloads? I stared at The Suitcase. I had carried that thing around for years and hadn’t even considered that I held Death in my hand.

“Deploy countermeasures. We will destroy them before they descend from Earth orbit. What is the estimated trajectory and impact profile of the missiles, Tyler?”

“Sir, it appears that they will kill forty million on impact, all in major population centers. Residual effects will be felt by another sixty million. Time for dissipation will be five hundred years.” I considered what to do as the three soldiers alternated between staring at me and their screens. My watch now read nine minutes.

“Taylor, try to contact any senior official in NeoEurope.”

“I am trying all contact points listed, sir. No response yet.” I had to wait, and time was no longer my friend. Who was I to make the decision to eliminate tens, if not hundreds of millions of people? I stared at my watch and counted each agonizing tick of the passing seconds. The room was silent as we all waited and hoped for a response.

“Sir, we have a General Boudreaux on the line.” I wasn’t familiar with him, but I needed to deal with whomever we could find at this point. I tried to calm myself. This must be a mistake. Panic was not something that would help the situation.

“General, why are we detecting missiles approaching our airspace?” Six minutes.

“I have no idea what you are talking about. We have launched no hostile actions. Your readings must be in error.” I muted the line. “Do any of you three believe these readings are in error?”

“The readings appear correct, sir. I have checked available satellites and ground telemetry. There is no doubt that these are not echoes,” stated Tyler.

“What does analysis of his voice show?”

“It appears that he is hiding something. Based on the stress tensors in his voice, he is lying.” said Polk. “Countermeasures have failed, sir.” I unmuted the line. Five minutes.

“We do not believe these readings to be in error. Destroy your missiles or we will be forced to retaliate. You have three minutes to comply.”

“How can I comply when we have done nothing?” screamed the general. “Think of what you are asking me to do and what you are accusing us of. For the sake of humanity, do the right thing and be rational. I am not insane. We have no interest in destroying the world any more than you do.”

Did he have that interest? I did not know this man and had no reason to trust what he said. I could feel the sweat dripping through my uniform onto the floor. My face was flushed, and I felt my knees quivering. The headache I had this morning had come back with a vengeance.

“You now have two minutes and thirty seconds.” I hung up and stared at my watch. Every second passed as an eternity. It was nice to run into Harry, my old friend, on what was possibly the last day of the world. Although I couldn’t remember his last name. I could have sworn it didn’t start with an M. I stared at the map in front of me and The Briefcase. I knew what my training told me was the next step, but it wasn’t possible for me to consider it.

Tears started dripping down my face as the men stared at me. I entered my code into the electronic lock. The Briefcase opened up, and within it laid the codes to open the door to oblivion.

“Their time is up, sir. What should we do?” Taylor said.

“I am entering my authorization code. Target all of their cities.” I stared at the screen as the numerous population centers lit up. I thought of the soon-to-be-dead fathers, mothers, and children. The ones who would live wouldn’t survive very long afterwards with the technology we had developed. Was it the right thing to do? I didn’t think so. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind, except instead of blindness I would be causing extinction. Not just of a few people but possibly the whole human race.

I looked at my watch. One minute remaining. The men all seemed unnaturally calm given the situation. I would have commended them for their professionalism, but things like that would no longer matter in forty-five seconds. A recommendation letter from me to achieve the next rank would do them no good. I guess I should have stayed a career soldier. Having a family was only a disadvantage now. My head was screaming. My body was wracked with pain. No sane man could make this decision, but here I was, in charge of it.

Five, Four, Three, Two, One, Boom. An explosion went off in my head. At least they wouldn’t feel anything. They had been located in the middle of the first bulls-eye. I stared at the entry screen in front of me and input the final authorization code. I did it without any further thought, as my training dictated. I was now Shiva, destroyer of worlds. The screen lit up as I launched everything we had. Their world would end along with mine.

I stood up and saluted the men who now were all staring at me.

“It was a pleasure to serve with you all, however brief it was.”

I lifted my gun towards the side of my head and pulled the trigger. I fell to the ground paralyzed, but not quite dead.

Taylor stood up and spoke to the other two soldiers, “You see, gentlemen, he pushes the trigger every time. We no longer have to fear if a man will hit the red button when the time comes and fail the organization. Through repetitive priming and selective retrograde amnesia, we know how he will react every single time. We usually gas and reset him at the end of each day, but for drills we need to replace his ammunition with something non-fatal. He has a habit of shooting himself at the end of them. With the support of two generals, such as you, we can extend this program to other locations.”

General Polk responded, “Has there ever been trouble in the past using this technique?”

“Initially, his colleagues and friends tried to assist him, but we had them removed. He also seemed to be aware that things were not right in the early years of the process. Now, it is no longer a problem.”

General Tyler continued, “It’s unfortunate that he tried to quit. The commitment papers were for life. He should have known better.”

I lay there and stared blankly at them. I had been turned into a lab rat without my consent. Just like in those old psychology textbooks where they used people’s initials instead of names until they were dead. Except I would never die, and I would never escape, and my family would never see me again.

Harry was once my friend. Why didn’t he try to tell me the truth? I guess he couldn’t be obvious about it, or he would have been caught like the others. I had to assume he had tried to help, but how? Then it hit me. His last name was Linden. So why had he inscribed HM on the back of my watch? HM. Henry Molaison. He was a man who lost the ability to form new memories and was left in an institution to be studied by scientists. Why didn’t I make the connection before? I would remember next time. They couldn’t keep me here forever. I would achieve freedom.

I woke up from the nightmare with my head pounding. You would think headaches were a thing from the past.

Experiment in Sanity

Final Verbal Testimony of Daniel Jackson

The world outside is a shining orb of blue and green. The colors assail my eyes, twinkling through every sunrise and sunset that I memorize. I can see it spread out beyond me from my spacious five-by-five window to the world. Why would anyone want to leave such a lovely sight behind? I breathe in the clean, oxygenated air, free of any residue odors from recycling. Fortune smiles on me, as I am a guest of the owner of this wonderful establishment. Every day I receive three trays of food that is not served in dehydrated packets. I no longer need to force-feed myself when I’m not hungry. I am free from the stench of other humans. I no longer need to worry about social pleasantries and daily responsibilities, as I am left to my own devices every day. I am free to read whatever books I want. I can exercise in the yard. With so much space to roam, I live like a king. Life here is perfect!

Research Log: Day 1827

The mania exhibited by Daniel Jackson appears to be over. He is the lone surviving subject. We could not intervene until the mission was declared a complete failure based on the Issuing Charter. Fortunately, we managed to knock him out with a dose of gas prior to him permanently injuring himself. We have removed him and left him unconscious until he can be transported to a research hospital for post-mission decompression. Greater attention will need to be paid on future Charters to interpersonal dynamics, amongst many other factors. The mistakes we made resulted in the unfortunate death of four crew members. We must learn from this tragedy and improve our Charter Guidelines, as this was just the first of many similar missions to come. Our budget allows for only a limited amount of Dyprosium, the catalyst to the engines that will allow us to travel beyond the stars. Failure is not an option, as losing a spacecraft is almost financially insurmountable for the project. If we are successful, long-distance space voyages will be common, but for now we need to conserve materials and focus on what maximizes mission success rates. The sacrifices we have made demand that we achieve our goals. Only then will future generations acknowledge the worth of what we have done.

Personal Journal of Maria Spielberg: Day 1826

Dan is outside the bathroom door, beating it in with a handmade crowbar he made out of the scraps of our now dead computer system. He will soon succeed in breaking down the door. I hope my end comes quickly. Viola, Haley, and Jose are dead. It’s funny how I can still focus on this mission, even when I know I am about to meet my maker. I am leaving this note behind in the hope that Dan survives this trip. Someone needs to explain that Dan is not to blame for what he did to me. Every man and woman has some evil in them. It just takes the right conditions to bring it out. I don’t condone his actions, and I won’t forgive him, but I hope you will. An animal that has been trapped in a cage for years unending can’t be blamed for biting someone who is trying to set it free. He needs help desperately, so please give it to him. At least one of us should be around to see Earth after all we’ve been through the last five years.

Personal Journal of Viola Cannon: Day 1825

I am very concerned about Jackson. The man was already losing weight and seeming listless before this latest incident. We’ve tried reasoning with him the last few days, but he will not respond to any of our inquiries. Given that there are four rooms in this spacecraft, and only two of them have locks, I’m glad that at least he didn’t stop us from using the toilet. Jose and Haley have recommended that we try to break down the door. I would agree with them, but I don’t want to upset Maria. We have been together now for nine months and I know she feels guilty for leaving Jackson. It was his own damn fault, anyway. If he wasn’t such a jackass about it, he could have realized that Maria would have been fine having a relationship with both of us. Men can be stupid like that. I’m giving him one more day before I change my vote on how to deal with the situation. I understand everyone needs personal space, but that doesn’t give him the right to deprive us of the little living space we have.

Research Log: Day 1821

Dan Jackson has decided to stop eating and has locked himself away in the crew quarters. It’s not clear why he is doing this. Psychoanalysis shows that he has been depressed the last few weeks, but his base profile, which is a clear blue, shows that he is not prone to suicidal tendencies. In zero gravity, a person requires more calories than they do on the surface of the Earth. Their body is never at rest due to their muscles being constantly in motion. If he maintains this hunger strike, he will not last very long. We estimate at most two to three weeks before heart failure. This situation is especially odd since the man was obsessive with his personal fitness only weeks ago.

Audio Recording between Jose Rodriguez and Daniel Jackson: Day 1750

Rodriguez: (Grunting) That is thirty. [Measured heart rate of 165]

Jackson: I guess it’s my turn on the cycle.

Rodriguez: Yup. Enjoy your three-hour workout. (chuckling)

Jackson: It was a lot easier to do this when we actually had a mission to look forward to. Don’t you get tired of the continuous exercise and eating the same crap every day? I don’t think humans were made to live like machines.

Rodriguez: Don’t worry, man. Soon we will be back to command and can do whatever we want. We will be heroes, the longest space flight humans have ever taken, that’s us! After some R&R, you’ll be ready for the next trip.

Jackson: I guess. I see you left this on the highest resistance setting for me. [Measured heart rate 70]

Rodriguez: It will help you burn off some of those doubts you seem to be having. How are things going with Maria? Have you made up yet?

Jackson: No, not really. It doesn’t help that Viola grins like a Cheshire cat every time I see them together.

Personal Diary of Daniel Jackson: Day 1600

Another night I will go to bed alone. Earth is still over a year away. There is no privacy here. Maria is very loud when she and Viola fuck. I know she is trying to be quiet, but that is impossible for her. I should know that better than anyone. I used to get her to make those noises for me. Why can’t they do it silently like Jose and Haley do? I drown out most of their noises by putting on the noise-canceling headphones, but I can still feel the vibrations they make against the wall of our spacecraft. The air we breathe is recycled and purified, but why can’t it remove the smell of sex that permeates whenever she gets off? You try to shut off one of your senses, and the others compensate. If I eat one more dehydrated protein bar, I think I will kill someone. Three flavors—firm, mushy, and crunchy—is not variety. In the past, I used the VR tech to fool myself into thinking I was eating something else, but I am tired of illusions. Illusions like us having a successful mission. Illusions like Maria still telling me she loves me before I go to sleep. I wish they had designed a window in this fucking thing. At least a porthole that shows reality would be a step up from the polished steel that envelops me.

Personal Diary of Haley Culberson: Day 1497

Dan and Maria had another blowup today. She called him “a waste of the damn air we breathe.” He called her a “bitch.” It only went downhill from there. They got in a massive argument over his continuous use of VR tech. I don’t think they will be coming back from this one. He truthfully only exists in the physical world for at most four hours a day. Even a saint like Maria can get tired of dealing with an addict like him. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like I don’t sympathize with the man. I know it hit him the hardest when we couldn’t survey the planet. We all have daily responsibilities around the craft, except for him. The routine allows me to function. His job was to take over command when we had a landing party to study the planet. That never happened. Now he needs to escape from a crushing reality that he can’t retreat from. She wants a flesh-and-blood partner, not a simulation junkie. In a normal situation, they would take a few days apart, cool down, and apologize. However, that can’t happen in this fishbowl where conflicts always accelerate and time always slows down.

Mission Notes: Day ?

It has been considered that a long-term space mission would involve a significant amount of interpersonal tension. People cannot be in continuous close contact without forming bonds that often lead to romantic relationships. [] The current hypothesis is that the ideal number of astronauts is five: two men and three women. Women tend to be more sexually fluid than men. They are also more suited to maintaining platonic relationships, especially amongst their own sex. It is predicted that having more women than men should result in a longer, more stable crew dynamic.

Personal Diary of Viola Canon: Day 1350

Maria and I have started a secret relationship (well at least from Dan). Normally, nothing can be hidden in such close quarters, so absolute honesty is a necessity for keeping harmony in our group, but he has brought this on himself. We kissed inside the crew quarters for the first time. I don’t use the word magical lightly, but after so many years together, it was amazing to taste her lips for the first time. I could tell from her reaction that she thought so, too. Dan sits numb to the outside world every day now, existing in a virtual fantasy. I feel sorry for him that Maria will eventually end their relationship, but he checked out of it first. We all have to pick up the pieces of this broken mission. I don’t want to do it alone.

Official Mission Log: Day 1000

A micro asteroid impacted the vessel at 14:05 ship time. It smashed and then ripped off the Condor’s landing and communications equipment, hurtling it into deep space. No vital life support or engine systems were affected. Mission protocol alpha delta has been activated, and the crew is returning to Earth. Communication is now impossible into and out of the vessel.

Personal Diary of Daniel Jackson: Day 950

It has now been almost three years of waiting. I’m preparing myself for the most critical portion of this undertaking. I won’t say that I am the heart of this trip, but my role is the most important for the future of humanity. Maria and I have made a decision to have a baby together when we get back home. We considered naming him after the planet, Charon, but thought that too heavy a name for a child to carry their entire life. As a xeno-biologist, this trip will cement my legacy. I will be the first man to find alien life. I wonder if they will name a monument after me.

Research Log: Day 850

It appears that the astronauts are still performing at peak efficiency after two years of service. They have entered into pairs per our predictions. Viola Canon, so far, has not materially intruded upon the groups, which is in line with our original hypothesis. The mission will soon be reaching its goal. We will be carefully observing what happens as time progresses. The original lunar missions, launched by the nation-state of America in the 20th century, had a number of challenges that their astronauts overcame. When Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon, it was not clear if the lunar module would bring them back to the command module, manned by Michael Collins. This was the first extra-planetary landing by a human being in recorded history. It was only discovered decades after the event that the president of America had a contingency plan in case of failure. After giving a speech commending the spacemen to the heavens, communication would be cut off to the stranded men. It had been decided that listening to two men die on an airless, lifeless world would irrevocably damage the space program.

Audio Recording between Daniel Jackson and Maria Spielberg: Day 690

Spielberg: Do you think we would be together if we had never met because of this mission?

Jackson: I would have found you even amongst the tens of billions of people out there.

Spielberg: You are a good liar. [Laughing]

Culberson: [inaudible dialogue] Get a room! [Laughing]

Jackson: We have a room. Thank you. We all share it!

Personal Diary of Jose Rodriguez: Day 500

We have reached the halfway point towards achieving our goals. All the team members seem to be working well together in spite of all the romantic innuendo going on between Maria, Viola, and Jackson. I’m glad Haley and I started our relationship before we left the ground. At least I know that I had a choice to be with her before we entered the space version of a situational romantic sitcom. Being locked together in a four-bedroom flat for multiple years, it is difficult not to have petty rivalries and passionate feelings. This confinement forces us to rediscover our emotions from when we were teenagers, and that is not a good feeling for anyone. Fortunately, we are all trained specialists, and we will not let extraneous matters affect our mission performance.

Personal Diary of Maria Spielberg: Day 400

I’m discovering that even I can feel lonely. I promised myself that I would keep things professional on this voyage, but when you are trapped in a grey, reflective tube, one’s mind tends to wander. There are only so many hours in a day to work, sleep, and eat. Dan has been especially sweet to me lately. I am starting to think that he may be the one for me. Living for years without a partner is not possible. I thought, at first, I could divorce myself from my emotions, but there is nowhere to escape them. I sometimes question the choice I made when I signed up for this. On paper, six years didn’t seem like an insurmountable sacrifice in exchange for advancing humanity’s expansion into the stars. What I didn’t consider is that a day passes a lot slower when you have to repeat the same tasks and see the same people over and over again. The passage of time is all relative to perspective, and my perspective is definitely no longer the same as it once was.

Personal Diary of Daniel Jackson: Day 350

Both Viola and I have been vying for Maria. It is clear that open competition could be detrimental to the mission, which we both want to succeed. We met with each other and set the ground rules while Maria was sleeping.

1)We would keep things professional between us, regardless of who loses.

1)We wouldn’t actively attempt to influence her choice of partner (no badmouthing).

2)We would always make sure she is happy. If she decides to end the relationship, we would respect her choice.

Letter from Haley Culberson to Lily Culberson : Day 2

Dear Mother,

I hope this letter finds you well. This is probably the only physical letter I have actually written in my whole life. Digital communications could get me in trouble, so I went analog. Who knew that the postal service was still operational? I guess I should be thankful for government inefficiency, since you will get something from me after I have left this rock.

To cut to the chase, I have been chosen for the first mission to reach for an extraterrestrial planet. According to my superiors, I was selected amongst thousands of qualified candidates. I am one of five mission specialists who have been trained to complete this undertaking. If we are successful, humanity will be able to progress forward once again. I was told to keep this a secret from everyone, but now that I have left the planet, what can they do to me?

I wanted to send you this so you wouldn’t worry about where your daughter disappeared to. I will be gone for six years. In case anything happens to me, I was doing what I always wanted to, so please don’t be sad. Say hi to Rex and Dad from me!

Funding Grant Proposal by Chief Psychologist Harry Townsend: Day 1:

Space travel is expensive and slow. The equipment and fuels we have for it are limited. Our financial resources are nowhere close to what they need to be. We have only the current capability to launch one successful mission. A failure will end the little moral and, more importantly, budgetary support we have from the populace and government. The chief risk to a long-term mission is not that our technology will fail. We have stress-tested it under every imaginable situation and built in redundancies. People, unlike machines, are mercurial and behave in unexpected ways, especially when they are under stress. No study has ever been completed where five strangers have been forced to live together, for more than half a decade, in close quarters, without any hope of rescue or escape. It is too risky to find out the results of this type of study through actual experience. Launching a mission into space and having the personnel fail would set back the space program for decades, at minimum, or hundreds of years, at worst. This is something we can ill afford, given the population situation developing on our planet. Therefore, it is recommended that the agency study the effects of long term confinement of a group of astronauts here on Earth. They will not and cannot know that their entire mission is a fraud. The agency can run these types of experiments concurrently and apply different conditions to the groups of personnel that are selected. The final outcome of each mission will further the goal of finding the ideal team to send out on that first extended mission. We will be testing many unpleasant and dangerous scenarios. The Charter expects there to be casualties. However, if we can’t accept a few deaths in the pursuit of our goal to leave the planet, future millions will suffer. The earth’s resources and our capital are finite, but people are one thing we have plenty of. We will not ask for forgiveness, for we know the consequences of our actions. May God have mercy on our souls.

When You Roll the Dice

We met in an ethics class. I was the ungainly and tall teaching assistant who was nursing a bad hangover from drinking an entire bottle of Maker’s Mark. You were the pretty brunette, diminutive but with fierce eyes, who I immediately knew that I wanted to learn more about. I had been forced to proctor your class as repayment to my roommate. This morning I had ruined his good loafers when I vomited into them, leaving him shoeless and unable to leave our house. The topic of discussion that day was fitting, if not even fateful. I never believed in the concept of providence or destiny until we stared into each other’s eyes that first day. Einstein said that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” but what of man when he rolls?

“Do the ends justify the means?” I asked this question to the eleven bored-looking undergrads sitting next to you in the discussion group. I didn’t realize at the time that this question would define my future relationship with you.

“This class is required as part of your engineering curriculum here at New Tech U because of this question. All of you are aware, I hope, of the experiments that were run prior to the first interstellar mission, locking astronauts together in a confined space, lying to them about their mission, and then mentally stressing them over multiple years on purpose until they snapped. Many people died as a result of these experiments, which came to light only after the trip was finished successfully. The directors of the program were forced to resign, but without their guidance, we would never have reached the stars. So was it moral to complete those tests? Did the suffering of the few justify the gains of the many? Or is that a sophism that people tell themselves to justify their own actions, even if they lead to the suffering of others?” I waited with no small amount of anticipation for your response.

My background was unremarkable in that it fit your stereotypical narrative of a loner-overachiever. The end result of my candidacy was an esoteric lab project, paid for by the public, which probably would never be commercialized due to society’s limited understanding of my research. I would get my name listed on a few published papers, and that would be the end of my illustrious school career unless I decided to begin the cycle anew, like an eternal ouroboros, by becoming a professor. They say that those who cannot do, teach. I like to think that those who choose not to do probably have a good reason for it. My parents had big plans for me my whole entire life. I was their only child, which was hardly an unusual story. Population control had been the norm for centuries, so they didn’t really have an opportunity for a second shot at greatness through their progeny. Alexander Ivanovich would be a well-known, respected genius, and that was it.

We met again at Sergei’s bar two days later. You were wearing a yellow sun dress, laughing with your friends. I still remember how the tint of your hair reflected the light, almost into the shape of a halo, from behind the stale old crusty curtains. I was sitting in the corner, nursing a cola, having sworn off drinking, at least for a few days. You saw me and smiled. I took it as a sign to come on over.

“What are you doing at a place like this on a Saturday? I thought PhDs had to give up on having a social life,” you teased.

“We aren’t all the dullards you think us to be. Let me tell you a little secret about what I am doing here in the corner. Sit down next to me and look out at the bar. What do you see?”

“I see Lindsay and the rest of my friends drinking over there. There are two men ordering cocktails from the bartender. I’m not exactly sure what I am supposed to be looking for.”

“What you have told me is not incorrect, but that is just on the surface. What you see in front of you isn’t just socializing, but important research.”

“And what possible type of information that I have been missing can one learn at a bar such as this one?” you inquired.

“I find that this environment helps me understand the more practical aspects of quantum physics. You see that man over there? His name is Jonathon. Jonathon has been trying to think of a way to start a conversation with that blonde, Genya, for the last ten minutes. Will he succeed or fail? It looks like he is about to make his approach. He noticed that we are now both staring at him. What do you think will happen next?”

“Looks like Jonathon is making his way across the bar to chat up Genya. I don’t think it’s looking too good for him.”

“Bars are small petri dishes of a larger social experiment started generations ago by primeval man. People are inherently unpredictable, but they all fall into certain patterns. I like to guess at the outcomes of people’s interactions. Of course, by observing something, I am affecting the outcome. It is impossible to be a passive observer, even hidden in bar corner. You see, I’ve been staring at Jonathon for a while. Did I force him to act on his feelings, having threatened him by sitting here, or would he have been motivated enough to make a pass at Genya absent my presence?”

“I see there is a bit of a philosopher behind that scientific mind. Now, tell me how have your observations affected the outcome of my behavior today?” you asked with a knowing smile.

The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics attempts to explain the dualism of a wave and particle. Erwin Schrödinger attempted to explain this paradox through a thought experiment.

A cat is penned up in a steel chamber along with a Geiger counter, which is secured against direct interference by the cat, who like all cats enjoys being a right bastard, knocking over the one thing you don’t want it to. In the Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

Your lips tasted like cherry the first time we kissed. I’ve always hated cherries since then because they remind me of you and what we had. We made out in the back of my old restored Ford. After we were done, you stared right into my eyes and told me, “You really shouldn’t own a car. They are bad for the environment.”

I responded, “Global warming already melted all the icecaps. It’s not like I drive it very far, anyway. Gasoline isn’t even made anymore since oil ran out. Algae is the food and fuel of the future. Besides, you seemed to enjoy the ride.”

“It’s that type of attitude that caused all of our problems to begin with,” you chided. “What will our future children live on if we continue to waste?”

“Our children?” I inquired with one cocked eye. Your face turned as red as your cherry lipstick.

I always had a knack for fixing mechanical devices, so I was the favorite of all the professors for teaching assistant positions. I would receive something broken, and I would tinker with it until it was fixed. Everyone has their one given talent, and mine was the repair of unworkable devices. Unfortunately, for me, there came a time I did my job all too well. The professor, under whom I was working, had given up in frustration on his research into a new type of neural interface device. Knowing my abilities, he turned the project over to me, thinking it a lost cause. I was handed a dossier containing hundreds of papers to read. I worked through the documentation, carefully trying to understand the implications of what this thing was supposed to do so I could rewire it to work correctly. The papers discussed possibilities and probabilities and how each particle would interact with one another. On a molecular scale, each possibility became a probability. Those probabilities would become outcomes. If one could predict outcomes, one could figure out how a single particle would affect the next. Eventually, this could be extrapolated to the nth degree. In principle, it sounded like it made sense, but in practice it seemed impossible.

We were married two years after I graduated. It was the second happiest day of my life. The first you know very well. You didn’t want to have a religious ceremony since you didn’t believe in a God. I never thought there was a God, but I now know that there is most definitely a Devil. We registered ourselves at the local court of law. At night, we made love for the first time under a cathedral of pine trees and on a bed of pine needles. It was perfect, like you. I stared at the sky for the first time with new eyes. What were the chances that each of those stars would form out of the whirling cosmic debris and dust? What were the chances that you would come to be born and find yourself sleeping with me in our tent, huddling next to each other in the cold?

It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naïvely accepting as valid a “blurred model” for representing reality. In itself, it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

I did become somewhat famous in limited circles as a result of my name being listed as a principal investigator on one of those research papers I assisted with. I guess occasionally a dog gets a bone if he waits long enough. We never had much money, but we always had enough. Besides, we had each other, and that was all that mattered. You had your career, and you were happy. I had mine, which took me on long university speaking tours across the world. However, after a time, we grew apart and became strangers in the same household. Like two ships passing at night, we knew the other existed, but we hardly spoke a word to one another.

“Why don’t we spend any time together anymore?” your mother cried. I didn’t have a satisfactory response. She left me alone to consider what I should do. Later that night, we made up and decided to have you. I don’t want you to think that we did it to save our marriage, by accident, or out of any selfish reasons. You were conceived out of a pure love between two people, even if that perfection only lasted into a window of an evening.

I continued working on the neural interface every night when I found a free moment. It was my Moby Dick and I was Captain Ahab. Where other projects had come and gone to closure, this one continued on long after it should have been abandoned. Understanding the underlying theorems and locating the parts that would make the device function properly took years of concerted effort. I somehow knew in my heart that this innovation would advance and change human history. I would not fail in completing it. The reality, though, was different than my intention. The interface did not work, and I had run out of ideas on how to modify it further.

My feelings of disappointment at that moment were overwhelming. I had never failed at repairing anything. I knew in my soul that I had fixed it perfectly, but it did not do anything when I activated it. My parents’ dreams would never be achieved, and my name would not live on into the future. There would be no revolution in how we saw the fourth dimension. Society would keep living its life linearly, progressing from one plodding second to the next until their time ran out. Man would not be free of his constraints of how he viewed the world. The trap of three dimensions was inescapable.

Then, inspiration hit me. I didn’t need to keep fixing the device; I needed to fix the user. The problem was that I had lived my whole life as a linear thinker. I was a product of my environment. I needed to open my mind. A device that operated in an additional dimension couldn’t be used by a normal man. I would need to adjust my thinking to match the nature of this new world that I was opening up. I considered all at once the totality of things that had and would occur in my life. I rolled the dice over and over again. I saw each outcome and interaction of every day, second, millisecond, and particle that had been or would ever be. Time seemed to stand still as I felt a rush of experiences enter my body and mind.

I watched you grow from a baby to a toddler. You learned how to smile. You took your first steps. You learned how to talk. You became a teenager, full of rebellion, out to change the world. You became a young woman ready to have children of your own one day. It seemed like an instant. Your mother and I were so proud.

I smashed the circuit board and set it on fire so that no one would ever have to know. I told the professor that the device was innately flawed and unfixable. He seemed disappointed and surprised, given my reputation, but I knew he would get over it, unlike me. I was glad that both of you didn’t suffer long when the first one hit. Pity me, poor Sasha, who managed to survive until the emptiness ate his soul away.

I went home to drink that bottle of whiskey. Halfway through, I promised you that I would vomit into the toilet. After all, it was the only decent thing left for me to do.

Forever Fluffy

I meow when you pet me. I like it when you pet me. Especially by the tail. Right there. That’s it. Purr. That feels good. Not so long though. I am leaving. Stop staring at me with that confused, stupid look. You know you deserved getting swatted in the face. I thought you would know better by now.

A cat is supposed to have nine lives, or at least that is what I have been told. I still remember the first time I died. I was chasing a bird to bring home to you. The truck came out of nowhere. It hit me and sped off. I was left a paralyzed wreck, more blood-covered-ragdoll than animal. I remember that you cried into my fur. It felt warm and nice. I was in pain. I’m sorry I hissed at you. I went to sleep. I woke up and I was a kitten again. That was a new feeling for me, existing as an adult one moment, nine years old, and a child the next. You were happy to see me. We went home and played with my favorite toy. It’s a piece of rope with a peacock feather on it. I knocked it around for a few minutes until I chomped it to pieces. My body was free of aches and pains. It was good to be young again. I wouldn’t get run over by any more cars now that my hearing, smell, and sight were back in order. I learned my lesson, but you decided that I should stay indoors, forever.

I didn’t mind it the first two years. I thought you were just being a little overzealous to protect me from harm since you thought I was a youth. The body I was in was deceptive. Kids can be rambunctious and you didn’t know that I was wise to the ways of the world now. However, you kept me locked up as I transitioned back into being an adult. I had a lot of free time, and I made use of it by watching television. I developed a passion for the nightly news. I learned that I was now trapped in what you humans call a minimum security prison. I was free to wander around the facility, but I could never leave. Yeah, it was cushy, and I got three squares a day, but I was a city cat who had roamed free. I tried to explain this to you, but you didn’t listen. I understood English, but you couldn’t comprehend cat. That made me angry.

I eventually gave up on my daily exercise routine and grew lazy, watching daytime soap operas. I didn’t really understand why the women got so upset when their men cheated on them, but it made for good entertainment. When I was free to enjoy the world, I had many toms, but apparently human females have a problem with what comes naturally. You eventually stopped aging, but I continued to mature. This time you were twenty-five, I think, when it happened. It’s hard to keep track now. There were fewer tears this time. I stopped peeing. You took me to the doctor. I fought with you the whole drive. It was time for my jail break. You still have that waning moon scar on your leg that I made. He said I had kidney failure. I did not like that man. He could have fixed me, but he was lazy. I know this because he told me so. It was much easier to start fresh than to repair an old one. He gave me a shot after I took out a piece of his hand with my teeth. I got very tired.

The third time around there was less novelty for the both of us. You ignored me while you found yourself busy at a new job because, after all, cats are self-sufficient. I had learned from my last life and now had purpose. There was a lot to do and many channels to choose from, and I had nothing but time. I learned how to speak lion, two dialects of dog, American bald eagle, and flying rat. I forgave you since I knew you couldn’t be expected to understand me. Your hearing was, and still is, far worse than mine. At night, I listened to every footstep outside our door, and I felt every raindrop as if it was actually on my whiskers. I stared out the window at a realm that was constantly in motion, while time for me was constantly at a standstill.

If you had bothered to ask me which channel inspired me the most, I would have to say it was the History channel. I watched a documentary special on a place called Alcatraz. This was the toughest prison ever made, and it was supposed to be inescapable. However, not all the humans acquiesced to their confinement, and they tried to escape. They rarely succeeded. Most times they died in the process, either getting shot by a guard, or drowning in the swift waters surrounding the island. I realized, though, that I had one advantage over all humans in spite of their superior size and strength. The prisoners only had one life to live, while I had many more. Even if I failed, I would learn how to succeed.

In anticipation of my great escape, I prepared both food and water. Every day, I stashed a little bit of kibble in a box hidden in your closet, surrounded by your dozens of shoes. You found my stash and told me I was a “bad kitty.” Bad kitty, I was indeed. I had to be more cunning and careful. If only I had opposable thumbs, I could open the door knobs that kept me from my freedom. Instead, I spent every day dulling my claws on a corner of the back window in your apartment, etching a hole into the safety glass. You didn’t notice anything was wrong because you always kept the blinds down over that pane. It took me four whole years to finally break through that glass. A long time indeed, but still I was proud of my accomplishment. I did considerably better than that man in the movie who spent fifteen years digging out a hole in the wall of his cell with a metal spoon. Nature provided me with all the tools I needed to escape and survive. I stepped out on the ledge of your window, carried out my small stack of food in my teeth, and made my way onto the street. I walked up the alley with my tail held high. I was queen of this row now. I smelled no other cats around here, so I rubbed myself against a brick wall, an outdoor metal table leg, and anything else I could find. No others would mistake this territory as their own. Everything went well for three weeks until I was caught by animal control. I ended up back in your arms. You actually seemed upset that I had left. I guess it was good to be missed. Maybe I was developing Stockholm Syndrome, but according to Jenny Meyers, everyone needs a coping strategy. You moved into a high-rise condominium, with your new boyfriend, to undermine me. However, I had escaped once, and I would do it again, but this time I would need accomplices.

By the fourth time around, he was your husband. You seemed genuinely happy. You started to scratch my cheeks like you had back when I was young. Both our stomachs grew fat from contentment. Maybe this imprisonment wasn’t that bad. I had plenty of space now to roam in this new building. There were even other cats nearby that I could talk to. Most of them were only on their first or second lives, so they didn’t know as much as I did. I taught them many things in confidence, away from prying human ears. I realized that I had to take on responsibility as their leader. I couldn’t abandon them to their fate, locked away for all eternity, having never tasted the freedom I had. A house cat and a noble lion are, after all, only differentiated by size, not by dignity. My machinations had been too small before. Now I was ready to operate on a much larger scale.

One cat couldn’t do anything to change the system, but together we could take over. However, I wasn’t in a huge rush. A plan of this magnitude would take time.

You eventually had a baby to replace me. I was resentful at first, but its smell triggered some long-forgotten nostalgia from when we first met. More importantly, she was happy to spend time curled up with me under a blanket, warm and asleep. Maybe I could teach this little human to communicate with me, since you were hopeless. I decided that since I couldn’t have my own kittens, I would raise this little one. It would be nice to spend a life doing something constructive instead of constantly plotting. I never realized how long it takes for humans to mature. Who knew you were so helpless in your infancy? It takes you two years to learn to use a litter box and have the balance to walk around. You can’t even speak your own language properly. Cats are clearly superior to humans. In the wild, a human litter would not survive for very long.

Your husband was a very bad, lying, cheating man. He slept with other women while you were not around. I had learned to differentiate between human and cat values, and by your standards he was horrible. Even worse, he did his carnal acts in front of me, not caring what I thought. You may have been my oppressor, but you were my human first. He brought in one bimbo after another, each one smelling like cheap cigarettes and booze. He would then spray chemical flower scent to hide what he had done. The mixture of his sex smells and all those other artificial scents gave me horrible headaches, since my sense of smell is sixteen times stronger than yours. He slowly became abusive towards you and started to kick me whenever I purposely stared at him when he was with someone else. No one kicks me and gets away with it. I could have used my plan to escape, but revenge sounded like something more appetizing.

I had become the leader of what soon would be a destruction of cats, but it would take more than just us to supplant humans. I managed to befriend the crows first. They appeared daily on my window to shade themselves from the afternoon heat. Speaking crow was a lot simpler than speaking eagle, but more challenging than pigeon. They were also easy to manipulate since they were very simple in their one-track mindedness. With a promise of unlimited free food if they assisted us, they became our willing allies. Predator and prey would work together in harmony for a common goal. I told them to spread my plan across the city to the other high-rises. Hopefully, others like me existed out in the wider universe. The plan would be initiated in ten days. Studying the patterns of his behavior, I knew he would be alone, which is what I needed for success.

I found the box of matches I had been saving, built a pile of them, and lit them carefully. I started the first of the many fires that covered the city that night. I walked into your bedroom where your worthless husband was still lying in a drunken stupor. He must have had some small part of dog in him, since he always paid penance by drinking himself stupid on the first day of the new moon. The fire marshal had been very helpful in explaining the safety features of this building when he inspected our sprinklers yearly. I knew that in the event of an emergency, the apartment doors would magnetically unlock to allow safety personnel in and people out. The apartment was beginning to fill with smoke. Since I was located on the ground, I was still able to breathe easily, although my nose was assaulted with the stench of burning plastic. I saw that he was starting to wake, having sensed danger on a primal level. I jumped onto the bed, clasped my warm impermeable fur across his face, and slowly asphyxiated him. He put up a bit of a fight towards the end, but I had the element of surprise along with the benefit of drink making him weak. I like to think that I became a tiger that day, a hunter of man. He wouldn’t be bothering us anymore. I leisurely made my way towards the exit stairwell along with my conspirators, thankful for the unwitting humans opening all the doors, easing our escape. Hundreds of us made our way together across the streets towards the edges of the city and liberty. To this day, I don’t think anyone realizes that I caused the Great Fire of ’23.

Many years passed in which I lived a free cat. I won’t bore you with the details of how we formed our own society, free of your interference. I know humans only care about stories that are about them. You are definitely one self-involved species. All you need to know is that the time came eventually for me to graciously retire after many fruitful years of judicious governance. That is when I decided to I come back home to you once again. You weren’t that hard to find with my superior sense of smell, present even in my extremely advanced age. I found you sitting by yourself, lonely and sad, in your newly empty home. You, physically, had not changed one bit. However, our child had left you abandoned in the world, a necessary but painful step towards adulthood. You cried just like that first time when you saw me hit by that truck. I meowed back to you, and you seemed to understand me for the first time. At the end of it all, there really has been only one constant in both our lives, and that constant is that I am forever your Fluffy.

Judgement Day

The accused walked into the courtroom. He was a middle-aged man with a strong, youthful build in spite of his slowly greying hair, and a small but near-imperceptible paunch. The bailiff pushed him forward until he was put in his rightful place, next to his counsel, a public defender. The prosecutor swaggered in through the door like he owned the place. Instead of a visible face, he wore a Guy Fawkes mask. Actually, for that matter, everyone wore a mask, except for the alleged criminal. The courtroom audience looked like it was dressed for a jungle masquerade, with the men wearing their Sunday best and the ladies in long dresses, hats, and gloves. Their faces were concealed with an array of full-face animal masks, resulting in an asexual but fierce-looking aesthetic. The defense attorney wore a mask with the face of the long-since-dead President Obama. The effect was disconcerting, as the man had skin clearly as white as his own. The defender turned to his client.

“This is the prosecutor’s first trial, but based on his light step, it seems like he thinks he has an open-and-shut case,” said the defender.

“What’s your experience level, if you don’t mind me asking? I didn’t get your resume since you were appointed for me,” responded the client.

“Don’t you know that I helped create universal healthcare and was responsible for ending the war in Iraq?”

“Stop being a wise guy. You are dealing with my fucking life here.”

“I see you aren’t one to joke. I guess it takes one to know one. Well, to be honest, this is my first trial also. However, I have a lot of experience in explaining away criminal offenses. I’m a master of excuses, actually. You know this one time…”

“Wait a second. My entire future hangs in the balance, and you are the best they could find? I want someone else. How do I stop this proceeding? Can you get me a continuance or mistrial or anything?”

“Well, it’s your own fault, you know. Ah, we better stop chatting. The arbiter of these proceedings has arrived.”

“All rise for the Honorable Judge,” said the bailiff, who wore a visage of Pennywise the clown. “The case of the State vs. James Johnson on the charge of murder will now begin. You may be seated.” The judge wore a plain white drama mask, inspired by Thalia, the muse of comedy. The mask had no holes for eyes, so in this case, justice could be truly blind.

The judge began, “I would caution the defendant that in this courtroom, there can be no lies. We have developed the means to determine what the facts are in every situation and that not speaking the plain, honest truth will only result in severe detriment to the defendant. Does the defendant understand this? I don’t want to have to repeat this warning again, as I am not a patient person.”

“Is that true?” James whispered to the defense.

“The judge is correct, but there are many shades of truth, as both you and I are aware. I would avoid outright lying, though. That will guarantee you a loss one hundred percent of the time, and we don’t want that. Neither of us enjoys being a loser. As your counsel, I can tell you that interpretation is important in this courtroom more than anything. Of course, if you did it, you better confess now. You may get a lighter sentence if you throw yourself to the mercy of the court.”

“I understand, Your Honor.”

“Very good. The prosecution may begin.” The prosecutor walked up to the jury. There were eight of them. They had intricately painted masks, half of them showing scenes from Dante’s Inferno and the other half Paradiso, delivering both heaven and hell.

“Gentlemen of this honorable jury, I come here today not to inform you about what happened, but to elucidate the motives and reasons. It is beyond a doubt that Mr. Johnson killed Theresa Franks. Beyond the forensic evidence, which you have seen, it is well known by all here that this is an undeniable statement of fact. However, he did not just butcher her in a state of passion. This was no accidental manslaughter, nor was this any kind of garden-variety killing. It was homicide in the first degree, a premeditated and planned execution, a murder most foul. I will prove to you all that Mr. Johnson here is nothing but an animal that needs to be put down by this hammer of righteousness, in which you all will be participating today.” It seemed like the inferno masks burned as the prosecutor sat down.

“Why didn’t you object to his statements?” James asked. “How can you have formulated a defense without even talking to me first prior to this trial? I have an alibi. I didn’t do it. This whole trial is a miscarriage of justice. I am entitled to a fair hearing, and you need to do your job or find someone else who will do it for you.”

“Pretrial meetings are pointless in this courtroom. [] Everyone already knows everything they need to know. I have this under control. Your trial is undoubtedly unbiased and reasonable, as you are being judged by a jury of your peers. Making rash, impulsive decisions will only make your current situation worse. I’m perfectly capable of managing this.” The defense attorney stood up.

“The defense also agrees that the defendant killed Theresa Franks.”

“Objection, your honor.” Mr. Johnson stood up and looked infuriated. He had seen a lot of courtroom dramas, and admitting guilt without your client’s consent was definitely beyond the rights and duties of a defense attorney.

“On what grounds are you objecting, Mr. Johnson?” The comedy part of the judge’s mask seemed to be slowly drifting towards drama.

“I demand a new attorney. My current one is incompetent. I never met him prior to today, and I did not give my consent to have him represent me. I have not admitted guilt, nor has my attorney consulted with me on this statement. I didn’t do it. I plead innocent.”

The judge let out a sigh.

“Ignoring your prior declaration of incompetence for a moment, Mr. Johnson, it is well known that you killed Ms. Franks. Are you contesting this indisputable fact in spite of my warning?”

Mr. Johnson weighed the consequences of perjuring himself in this courtroom. Given the way this process had been going so far, it seemed like a bad idea to disobey what he had been told.

“I withdraw my objection. However, I want new counsel. Please allow me to find someone else.”

“That isn’t an option. The trial will proceed.”

“This isn’t fair. At least let me defend myself.”

“That is undoubtedly a right you have been given. Is there anything else?”

“No. Thank you, Your Honor.”

Mr. Johnson sat back down.

“I would suggest in the future you let your counselor handle your defense. You are not endearing yourself to this court with your little outbursts and temper tantrums. Maybe if you had more self-control, none of us would be here today. Please continue.” The defense counselor had managed to switch his face to become Abraham Lincoln while Mr. Johnson was protesting.

“As I was saying previously before being rudely interrupted, Mr. Johnson is guilty of killing Theresa Franks. However, it was without malice or any prior planning. The defendant didn’t know what he was doing, and by the time she was dead, it was too late. He suffers daily from remorse and regret. One could characterize this killing as temporary insanity. If he could take back his actions, he would. He isn’t a threat to society and should be let free under court-ordered counseling.” The jury and judge returned to a more neutral color scheme.

“The prosecution may begin with its witnesses.”

“First, I would like to bring forth someone who will give some history on the relationship between Mr. Johnson and Ms. Franks.” A skinny man who seemed about the age of a teenager, with a Cupid mask, appeared from the doorway and walked towards the stand.

“I will let the witness describe the relationship in his own words. I think we can all agree that understanding one’s past is the key to interpreting one’s present and future. Please begin your statement.”

“I remember the relationship between the two of them very well. I could say out of all the couples I have ever met, they seemed to be the most in love. Of course, it is hard to be completely objective when you are recalling memories from years long since gone. They met in Biology four-fifty-one in college. Their meeting seemed like fate more than chance, with him walking into her on the stairs on the first day of class. He apologized by giving her his seat at the front by the professor. Things progressed quickly from there. They studied together every day after their lessons. He stole his first kiss at a late-night concert they both attended. When they graduated together in four years, he proposed and she accepted. They seemed happy for a long time afterwards, with decades passing uneventfully between the two of them.”

“In your opinion, did the defendant have any negative emotions towards Ms. Franks during this period of their life?”

“No, they were unfailingly happy.”

“Thank you for your testimony. I will turn the witness over to the defense.”

“The defense has no questions, Your Honor. The prosecutor may bring his next witness.”

“I’m confused. What was the point of that? It didn’t help his case against me,” asked James. “And who is that man to have been spying on me in school? I need to know the identity of my stalker.”

Harry Truman turned to respond.

“Witnesses and participants are kept confidential during the trial. Now be quiet, the prosecutor is bringing in his next witness.” A man walked in wearing a mask of Lucifer.

“This witness will testify to what happened after the ‘Laissez le bon temps roulez’ came to an end. Please continue the story, sir.”

“They started to drift apart after Mr. Johnson got laid off from his work. Having been employed in the same industry as Ms. Franks, resentment slowly grew to hate, as his ego couldn’t handle her being the breadwinner in the relationship. Compliments turned into insults. Words became sharply cutting weapons flying from his mouth. He drove her away with his callousness and lack of care. He was a poor husband and a failure of a human being.”

“Objection, Your Honor!” James slammed his fist on the table. “I thought this courtroom demanded truth. All I hear is someone’s unqualified opinion on the subject of my relationship. How can he even know the facts of my situation? I have the right to know my accuser.” The Judge’s mask became a mixture of both comedy and drama.

“You’ll have the chance to rebut this man if your counsel allows. Now, please sit back down and be quiet. It is not the court’s problem to address your dissatisfaction with the prosecution’s witnesses. You have only yourself to blame for them and this situation you are in.” James looked at his counsel, President Harrison, and realized things were not going well.

The witness continued, “It wasn’t that he was unwilling to change, but that he did not know how to change. Decades of inertia is something that few can overcome. She asked for a divorce, and realizing that it was finally over, he snapped. After it was done, he started to sob and immediately regretted his actions. He showed remorse and reported the incident himself, recognizing that he had made a huge mistake. Of course, that doesn’t relieve him of the consequences of his actions.” The prosecutor pondered on this testimony. It did not seem to make his case, but it didn’t seem to bother him.

“I have no further comments, Your Honor.”

“Does the defense have anything to say on this matter?”

“No, Your Honor. I believe the witness said plenty.”

James leaned over, with a glimmer of a smile, and whispered, “See? It wasn’t my fault.”

“Does the prosecution have any more witnesses to call?” The prosecutor shook his head no.

“Then the defense shall begin with its commentary.” The mask that the attorney now wore was the countenance of Lee Harvey Oswald. “I’d like to bring forward my client, Mr. James Johnson.”

“I don’t understand what business I have in testifying at this point. Our case has been made by the prosecution. I don’t think it will help any.”

“Even if you don’t think so, I’m sure that someone else would disagree.”

James made his way towards the stand.

“I have a right not to testify. You can’t force me.”

“That won’t help you here. Silence is a form of expression also. Would you like to leave the jury with the words of the prosecution’s witnesses or your own? In the end, it doesn’t matter, but if you don’t speak up for yourself, someone else will. You said you wanted to defend yourself. Now is your chance to do so. Sit down.”

“Your Honor, may I proceed?”

“You may.”

“Mr. Johnson, have the previous two witnesses accurately described your past relationship with the victim?”

“No, I don’t believe so.”

“What wasn’t described accurately?”

“I don’t believe I was being callous, and neither was I a bad husband. It wasn’t my fault that I had been laid off and that I had to sit at home doing nothing.”

“Did you have any intention of harming Ms. Franks prior to the murder?”

“No, never, not once.”

“Objection!” yelled the prosecutor. The judge’s face became the epitome of comedy.

“On what grounds?”

“The man is clearly lying.”

“Sustained. Mr. Johnson, we discussed telling the truth at the beginning. I am feeling generous and will let you continue speaking. Consider this your only warning. Please continue”

“I will ask the question again. Did you have any intention of harming Ms. Franks prior to the murder?”

“Everyone has occasional stray thoughts of hurting somebody. Am I to be condemned based on my thoughts, or should I be judged by my intentions and actions? Who are you all to make these types of judgments about me? I demand to see your faces so I can know who to sue when this is all over.”

“Mr. Johnson, you are aware that your thoughts and intentions are the key to determining what your punishment should be? Did you not dream of suffocating her until the whites of her eyes rolled over?”

“That is simply not true.”

The audience began to jeer and point at the guilty man. The judge rose and slammed his gavel down silencing the courtroom. “Did I not warn you about lying? Gag this criminal.”

The bailiff walked over briskly to the prosecutor, took off his mask, and affixed it to James’ face. To his horror, the prosecutor had the same face as him. The rest of the court also followed in suit and removed their masks. They also wore his face.

“So shall we continue?” said the judge. The prosecutor smiled. It was time to begin the sentencing. It would be his first victory in a courtroom where the judge, jury, executioner, and the accused were one. James tried to scream, but no noise came out from his lips.

Third Time’s a Charm

Dear Jill,

It’s not that I don’t want to remember you. Trust me when I say, I’ve tried over and over again to revive the experiences we shared together. I watched the videos. I looked at the pictures, too. I tried to imagine what those events felt like, especially that first date where we visited the carnival. That seemed like a good one. You oozed innocence and sex appeal in your blue jeans. I seemed ruggedly handsome, two days unshaven, walking hand-in-hand with you to see the acrobats and robot dinosaurs. You were frightened by the T-Rex, and I took advantage of the moment to make out with you, scoundrel that I was. God only knows why I recorded the whole thing. I must have thought that it was an experience worth reliving again in the future, since you were the one. Maybe I had some sense back then after all. The video of my bachelor party and our engagement trip to Hawaii is best left unsaid in this letter, but I still smile thinking about how much fun we apparently had. We’ve been married now for two months. You think you know me, your husband, but you don’t. I hesitate to admit this, knowing it will hurt you, but I am a stranger. The man you promised to keep in sickness and in health is dead and gone.

I think it is probably suitable that I introduce myself to you, since the reality is that we have truly never met. I was born thirty-one months and four days ago. I had the usual childhood, without any really terrible events or any serious wants, except when my father left our family when I turned twelve. That was the first real trauma in my life. With the fiction of a happy, nuclear family destroyed, I rebelled against my mother. Punishing my body with a quick high became my source of comfort. Somehow, I managed to hide my addiction from her and others. I maintained my grades at school, in spite of smoking myself into pain-free oblivion every evening. She had her own form of grieving when she went out and remarried a much younger but obese man. Unfortunately, my angst led me down a dark road, where I progressed into becoming an Energen addict, looking for a score in progressively worse and worse places while maintaining the illusion of being well-adjusted to the outside world. As a man now of some considerable age, it was a stupid way to deal with my personal problems, but as they say, “Youth is wasted on a young”

Five years into it, my heart stopped. I woke up on a gurney, staring at my mother’s overly ruddy face. It seemed like she had been crying. My suspicion was confirmed when she slapped my face and told me never to be so stupid again. Her fat husband was there also. I could tell that he was trying to be supportive, but it was clear that he was indifferent as to whether or not I expired from this world and moved onto the next. The doctor walked in and announced my prognosis, “Son, you are lucky to be alive. Your heart was stopped for twenty minutes. One hundred years ago, you would be undeniably dead. Fortunately, for you, we have technology nowadays to save your sorry ass. So in summary, you get to live, but now you are made of approximately twenty-eight percent machine. Long-term use of microscopic machines (or nanites, as we like to call them) has not really been approved by the health administration. However, in your case, we didn’t have much of a choice, so you get the benefit of being our little guinea pig.” All of that sounded extremely swell at the time, except for the final part, which I didn’t understand. I later found he was referring to a small, extinct rodent that was used for either medical experimentation or good eating in South America.

Needless to say, I walked out of that clinic a new man (at least that is what I think I did). I swore to change my ways, live right, and make amends with God. That didn’t last very long, as I ended up becoming an addict all over again. My medical records show I got run over by a motor vehicle. I woke up in the hospital again with what I found out later was the same doctor who had treated me the first time. I have it noted that he gave me a warm welcome. I think he said something along the lines of, “You again. This is the last time I waste my time saving your skin, you worthless piece of crap. I didn’t call your mother. I don’t think she can deal with this shit happening a second time.”

I must say he was an excellent doctor, but he possessed terrible bedside manner. The man did revive me twice from the dead, after all. That was already more times than Jesus. I walked home that day still baffled by his statement. From what I knew at that point in time, it was the first time we had ever met. When I entered my apartment, nothing was where I remembered it. My bed had been moved, my posters were no longer on the wall, and I now owned Tupperware (which no single man should have in any quantity). I could see traces of myself in this room, but it seemed like a premonition of a man I would become (or had been). I considered for a time that I had acute amnesia and decided to start keeping a diary to record my daily thoughts and actions (with the idea that recording my daily life would jog my memory). I didn’t think it worth alarming my mother, given what the doctor had said, and I muddled my way through social visits with her.

Given my addictive personality, which demanded full attention to whatever I was doing, I kept detailed notes. This time around it seemed like I was close to making something of myself. I got an advanced degree, but somehow during the process of doing so, I joined a left-wing political organization. Some of my writings from that time don’t make a whole lot of sense now, especially since I don’t believe that meat is murder. I definitely know that I wouldn’t set myself on fire to impress a girl or protest treatment of political prisoners in some third world hellhole, but somehow I did. When I woke up, it was a new, more sympathetic lady doctor, and I again entered the life of someone who was a stranger to me. Finding my diary every time, it became clear what had been happening. I would die or get severely injured, and my brain would reset to the moment that I had been first injected with those useful (but infernal) machines. I think that part of me enjoyed the possibility of living multiple lives and then discarding them for a new one when I got bored. The diary grew from one chapter to a volume and from a volume to a collection.

Every time I woke up, I would read through the accumulated knowledge and failures of my past selves. Although I never remembered my past, I became enslaved to the history of it. There were so many paths that I had followed and so many people I had been, and yet I had never found satisfaction in life. A well-adjusted man would not have suffered through so many misadventures in finding himself.

I tell you all this so you can understand who I am and what I am going to do about it. The last book I read told me how I found happiness with you, how we got married, and how I hoped that together I would finally have my happy ending that I deserved after so many false starts. Yet I know my previous self all too well. He must have somehow screwed it all up, since he didn’t write a final page to the chapter of our life. My existence proves that. You have probably wondered why I have been acting strangely lately, and now I hope you understand. Living with you this past month, I am certain that I will never meet your expectations of who you think I should be. I know you deserve better, and I know you deserve more. I am, unfortunately, incapable of being that man, having been shackled by my past. However, I know also that I can change. I have loved you two times, Jill, so I give you a choice that I am incapable of making for myself. I leave you this letter with the truth (as best as I know it to be, anyway). You will find me waking up in Antidote General Hospital in eight hours. I have burned my diary to ashes. We can start like a phoenix anew, free from the ghosts of my past, or never meet again, strangers passing into the night. The decision is yours.

Cheaper by the Dozen

Bill woke with a headache, a massive one that would take at least two cups of coffee and three analgesics to get down. Judging by the state of the room, with thigh-high stockings and four-inch heels strewn about, she had been out whoring last night. Bill hated how his sister brought home strange men to purposefully irritate him the day before it was his turn to live in the room they shared. It didn’t happen every time he was gone, but it occurred often enough that it was a problem.

He always found it funny how this had been society’s solution to a battle with overpopulation. The human desire for a two-child household was unabated, even in a world where death was no longer a fear. Something was hardwired into the genetic makeup of man that required the spreading of their genes. The consequence of all this was that Bill and Jackie had grown up together sharing everything. Even now as adults, they were still forced to divide this one-bedroom apartment amongst themselves. The arrangement resulted in them switching off every two weeks, with him having to clean up after her and vice versa.

Lately though, it felt like she was always leaving the bigger mess for him to take care of. He knew that the smell of sex that permeated the apartment wouldn’t dissipate easily, but at least a shower would give him a fresh start to the day.

After letting the hot water run over his body and face for a few minutes, he felt much better prepared to begin his next chore. Putting away the rest of Jackie’s crap took the better part of an hour, but it was a necessary evil for him to feel like his own man in this communal space, which was currently overloaded with femininity. With that accomplished, he was ready to go to work. He mustered all the serenity he could and made his way onto the street. He was assailed by the noise and smell of the crowds that surrounded him. His body broke out into a cold sweat, and he ran back into the now all-too-narrow building. It wasn’t enough that he had to share a life with his sister in their apartment. The whole world was too overcrowded, with untold billions schooling together like sardines in the ocean, swimming and living together, always inches apart. It was maddening insanity that he could never escape from. Bill searched in his pocket and found a benzo to take subcutaneously. He could get through this. He marched back onto the street, trying to hold his breath, avoiding the stench of the commingled humanity that he had grown to hate and that had caused all the problems in his life.

Bill breathed deeply again when he made it to work. Both his sister and he were employed in architectural design at the same firm. Having been educated together and gone to the same college, it was only natural that they would share an interest in a similar career. Sitting down to his desk, he looked at the note left behind by Jackie:

I finished the structural elements of the Chrysalis building. I’m leaving the interior design to you. By the way, sorry for the mess in our place in advance. XOXO. –Jacks

Bill looked over the plans. She always did excellent work. It was hard to get permanently mad with someone who was such a perfect work partner. All that time together had made them share a form of sibling ESP when it came to just about everything. Personally, it was a disaster, but as a professional it made his life easier. After inspecting and approving of all her work product, Bill realized it was time to get some more coffee. On the way over to the pot, his co-worker Henry shouted out to him and then awkwardly put his hand on Bill’s shoulder.

“It’s good to see you this morning. I wanted to talk to you about something personal. It’s about your sister.”

“What is it?” Bill wasn’t really in the mood to talk to Henry. He found the man a bit obnoxious for his taste. He always felt that Henry lorded over him, due to the more than a foot difference in their heights.

“It is probably better I tell you after work. Let’s meet up at Flaherty’s at seven.”

“OK. I will see you there.” Bill made his way back to his desk. He didn’t particularly enjoy socializing with coworkers, but it was a necessary evil to maintain good relations at work. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, with the exception of Sheila from accounting coming up to bother him with her thrice-daily gossip.

“I heard that Amy finally got approved to have a child with her husband Rick. I know that she has been cheating with the boss, though. Everyone sees him close the shades when she comes in. I’m not sure they could be more obvious about it.”

“Sheila, if you want to prattle on about everyone else’s personal secrets, you really should go do it elsewhere. I don’t want to hear about them, and besides that, I am very busy today. You know the first weekday I am back is always the busiest.”

“Oh, come on, Jacky, don’t be such a spoilsport.” She liked to tease him by calling him his sister’s name. She knew it got under his skin.

“Why don’t I tell you something a little juicier? That might pique your interest. It’s about Jacky.” He rarely, if ever, got to see his sister due to their living arrangement, so in spite of himself, Bill was now interested.

“What my sister does in her personal life isn’t any of my business.”

“Now, come on, I know you are curious. I heard last night from her on the phone that she has a serious boyfriend now.”

“That seems unlikely given the amount of free time we both have. Besides, we both know she is the wilder one of us. She is incapable of having a serious relationship.”

Sheila started to laugh.

“Well, that isn’t what she told me. She claimed she was head over heels in love with someone here at work, no less. The boss usually prohibits that kind of stuff, but given his own arrangement, he can hardly comment.”

“I see. Well thanks for sharing that.”

“Do you know who it is?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.”

“You aren’t any fun. You should be more like Jacky. Sometimes it seems like the only thing you share in common is your blood type and your jeans size.”

“That is very true. I will see you in a few.”

Sheila kissed him on the cheek and ran back downstairs. That woman was such a tease sometimes.

The day passed quickly with Bill making the edits in the places Jacky had left for him to fill out. An arch would have to be placed here. A fountain could be positioned there, on the first floor, to balance the aesthetics of the arch. These were the only times that he felt fortunate that he had a twin. They understood certain things about each other implicitly. The clock on the wall soon hit 6:30 p.m., and Bill realized that he better start making his way to Flaherty’s. Alarm filled him, knowing that he was going to yet another crowded place. When he got there, Henry was waiting.

“Let me buy the first round.” A drink would take the edge off the nervousness Bill felt with so many people milling around.

“I never turn down a free drink. Get me a double bourbon and water.” Henry made his way to the bar and ordered their libations from the pretty brunette bartender. Bill wasn’t much of a player, but ladies seemed to like him. He was fairly slight in build, but he had a well-toned body and long, glossy, golden hair. He presented a non-threatening alternative to people like Henry who tried overly hard to assert their alpha masculinity. Many women tended to respond well to the pretty-boy look that Bill was selling. The bartender saw him tracking her movements as she made their drinks and responded by giving him a smile. He returned her smile with one of his own. He would have to chat her up later now that his blood pressure was getting back down to normal. Henry sat down and passed the drinks over. The faster this forced social visit would be over, the sooner he could test out his game.

“Let’s cut to the chase. What’s on your mind? You hardly talk with me at work, so you must have some reason for getting me out here with you.”

“You caught onto me pretty quickly. I brought you out here to ask for your blessing. I am going to ask Jackie to marry me.”

The blood drained from his face. This was not what he had expected to hear. Jacks had never been the sort to settle down or stay with one man very long. It was an implicit understanding, given their living condition. He knew Henry was a bit of traditionalist, but this was too much.

“I’m not sure I can give that to you. Let me think about it. Thanks for the drink.” He stood up and tried to make his way through the crowded bar. Escape seemed impossible, as all the people in the room melded into one super organism, possibly an amoeba or jellyfish, which would eat him alive. Bill tried to suppress a scream. He closed his eyes and plunged into the amorphous mass, pushing and jostling his way through about a dozen people, until he made it to the emergency exit. He slammed into the door and found himself in a narrow, abandoned corner. He realized there was a bulge in his jeans that he hadn’t noticed before. Fishing into his pocket, he found a cigarette left in it, along with a lighter.

“I guess everyone has to have their vices,” he said to himself. He lit it, took a drag, and calmed his overstimulated nerves. Thankfully, given the time at night, the streets were emptier than usual as he made his way back home. He would have to talk to Jackie about Henry, but first it was time to pass out.

The alarm went off. Bill lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Focusing above his head, he slowly became cross-eyed and unable to count the familiar one hundred ninety-six tiles that were there. Even though the number of tiles was large, it was finite. There would never be more or fewer tiles than were currently on that ceiling. Each tile seemed identical at first, but on closer examination, they all had their own unique but minute differences. This gave Bill comfort in his moment of terror. Once he finished his morning meditation, he would have to go to work. At work, he would have to deal with Henry. He did not want to talk to Henry. Maybe he could call in sick? That seemed like the easiest solution. However, his thoughts, like a tempest, shifted quickly. Work was the one thing in his life that he enjoyed. Why should Henry steal that from him? His whole life would change based on what he was asking for. It wasn’t fair. He decided the best way to tell Jacks his feeling on this subject was by writing a letter to her, as this would allow him to organize his thoughts. After doing so, he thought that he would actually very much enjoy telling Henry to “sod off.” Stepping out the door, Bill had a bit of spring in his step. Sheila would definitely have something to gossip about now.

Bill was a righteous prick. What business did he have messing with her life? Jackie had her reasons for shacking up with Henry. Her living arrangement with Bill had been getting more and more untenable as the years had passed. The situation had been fine when they were children and didn’t know any better. However, as she grew older, it became clear that their sharing of everything was most definitely not the norm. They had never lived in a world, free of an excess of twenty billion people, where everyone could get a small piece of home to call their own and be their own man or woman.

Being with Henry allowed her to forget her situation, and that was a blessing. It wasn’t that she didn’t have an opportunity to make a life for herself, or even have a fulfilling career. She didn’t have to suffer with a shorter lifespan since she, like everyone else, was effectively immortal. It was the simple fact that she lived a life of a girl interrupted. Her weeks never flowed into one another. Arguments always started at the wrong time and didn’t get resolved in an expeditious fashion, destroying relationships she struggled to build. She decided that she should wear something especially revealing to work today. That would surely upset Bill. She searched through her wardrobe and found a tiny little black dress. She put it on, threw on her makeup, and made her way uptown.

She walked in the door and made her way to Henry’s office. He smiled as she walked in.

“Hello, beautiful.” He stood up and gave her a deeply passionate kiss.

“I heard you had a chat with Bill.”

“Yeah. I did. He wasn’t too pleased with what I had to say.”

“His blessing doesn’t matter. I’m a grown woman, and it is my body, so the decision is mine alone.”

“That may be true, but it would be a little bit awkward for us three to work and spend time together if he doesn’t agree to the situation. Jobs aren’t that easy to come by nowadays, and I would hate for him to sour it for all of us. You know I love you, and I’m willing to wait until he comes around.”

“And what if he doesn’t?”

“We will just have to be more convincing.” Henry slapped Jackie on the butt. “Now, you need to get to work. You are way too distracting for me to get anything done.” She kissed him one more time, walked out the door and went to her cubicle. Bill had left her some designs to finish sizing and then loading into CAD. In spite of him being an ass, he did do good work. She thought to double the size of the door frame, but it seemed a little excessive. After catching up on all the tasks she had been left to complete, she went down to talk with Sheila and to grab some lunch.

“How goes the love affair?” Sheila inquired.

“Good. I think we are going to get married for sure.”

“Your brother isn’t agreeable to your having long-term relationships.”

Jackie made an unpleasant face.

“He can bite me for what I care about his opinions.”

Sheila cocked one eyebrow.

“Now, now. Wouldn’t it be more fun to sleep with me rather than Henry? Ladies are much better than men.”

“Very funny. You know I’m not into girls.”

“I guess I will have to sleep with your brother then.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“I definitely would. He is pretty cute, and I think I could make him my type. He has a nice ass,” Sheila laughed.

“I don’t think he would appreciate what you have in mind.” Jackie starting laughing also.

“I imagine not. His slender body would look good in that dress you are wearing, but I guess that wouldn’t be playing fair, would it?”

“No. Not really. Let’s go eat.”

Jackie made her way home after work. She would give Henry a call to come over. Maybe she could convince him to move in after he proposed.

Bill woke up in a sweat. He hated waking up, since he never knew where he was the first few seconds upon exiting sleep. He looked around. This was not his bed, and he had no idea where he was. Fortunately, he found a pair of pants and a t-shirt next to the bed with his wallet. He heard someone in the restroom and decided it probably would be better if he left without saying goodbye.

The blackouts had always been an unpleasant side effect of his lifestyle. Along with his crippling agoraphobia, it was how he was forced to live his life. Ruminating on the unfairness of it all, he walked out onto the street and started to stumble towards home. He felt like he had a mean hangover going. Judging by the aftertaste in his mouth, it must have been vodka.

Fortunately, a cab drove by and he managed to get a ride and to avoid the slow trek across town. Back home, his panic subsided, and he ran to the shower. His body was wet and sticky from the festivities he didn’t care to remember. He scrubbed himself under the boiling water until he felt clean. Walking out of the shower, he noticed a note taped to the back of the bathroom door. Dear Brother. I hope you enjoyed your surprise. You can’t tell me what to do. ♥, Jackie.

“That bitch. This is her fault.” This was the final straw. It was time to man up and take what was his. He noticed that Jackie had left her email account open. He sent a note to Sheila.

Sheila, I’ve not been entirely honest with myself. I know you fancy me and I think we should try getting together. If you feel the same way, come over to my place tomorrow night. We can explore some new possibilities.

While he was at it, he sent a note to Henry.

Henry, I’ve thought it over. My brother is right. I’m breaking up with you. I’ve decided to also find a new job so it isn’t awkward at work. Please tell the boss I am giving two weeks’ notice.

The stage was set for his turn on Jackie. The next step was clear. He scoured the net to find someone he could pay to solve his condition. Reconditioning was illegal, but like all things, where there is a demand, there is a supplier. After some considerable effort, a website popped up that helped him find what he was looking for. It would require going outside and across town, but it was a necessary evil. He grabbed a cab and made his way to Old Town. He looked for the red, dilapidated building second from the right to the laundromat. Walking inside, he saw a wizened old man (a rarity in these days), sitting in a chair with a board in front of him. He sat there debating what to say to him for an uncomfortably long period of time until the old man spoke.

“You play Go?”

“I’m afraid not. Board games were never popular when I was a kid.”

“That figures. I guess I am an old dinosaur in that respect. You could learn a lot from it, though. Everyone starts out equal on the Goban, just black or white stones. Two sides of the same coin, but each tries to capture as much territory as possible without giving up any in return. One thinks that they have the advantage to later find out they were at a loss.”

“That is all very interesting, but I am here for the procedure to resolve my problem.”

“And are you sure it’s a problem that you want solved? The treatment is irreversible.”

“I am tired of feeling trapped in my own skin.”

“I want to make you aware that what you are asking for is the equivalent of murder. I just provide a place and the tools to follow the process. You are ultimately responsible for any crimes you may commit.”

“I didn’t come here for a lecture. Here is the money. Just show me what to do.”

The man started to laugh.

“Come into my office then.” Inside he found a little room covered in filth with an old dentist chair and a projector. The old man turned off the light and handed Bill a gas mask. He then sat down on a stool in the corner and pulled out a magazine from his coat pocket to read.

“Lie down and click the button on the chair. It will activate a video. You must watch it.”

A series of random colors appeared on the screen with brief flashes of text. He started to turn his head towards the old man. The old man looked up from his magazine and gave him a disapproving glance.

“No. You must stare at the screen.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Keep watching.” After about fifteen minutes, the film ended.

“Think about what you want to do to your twin. Then, turn the knob next to you and place the mask over your face. Breathe in the mixture and close your eyes.”

“I don’t feel any different after the video. It just looked like a bunch of unrelated images. Are you sure this will work? I paid you for this. You better not be scamming me.”

“Are you here to argue with me?”

“No.”

“I am a trained psychiatrist. You are not. Do what I tell you to.”

Bill positioned the mask, took two huffs, and then passed out. The old man guffawed and mentioned to no one in particular, “They always have to feel like they are getting their money’s worth.”

Jackie woke up groggy and walked out the door. The old man was waiting next to his Goban. He handed her a black and white stone to hold onto with her trembling hands.

“Here is a souvenir of your visit. I like to give all my clients something to remember this moment by. It helps them achieve better integration.”

“I never thought that he would try to kill me. Bill was my brother. I didn’t want him dead. Is he gone?”

“You tell me.”

“I have all his memories and thoughts. Oh god, I am a killer.” The old man found a cigarette in his pocket and lit it. He lit one for her too and handed it over.

“I don’t think you can murder a psychological construct. A split personality, no matter how distinct, does not make for two separate people. The law may disagree on this fact, but it doesn’t make it any less true.”

“So what do I do now? How can I live with myself?”

“You just happened to have the dominant personality. It’s not your fault. In fact, it is almost always the case that the weaker one comes here and seeks me out. Don’t feel ashamed or upset about his decision. You need to learn to accept it. For after all, what was his is now yours.”

Jackie (or was it Bill?) sat there motionless, took a few remaining, thoughtful drags out of his/her cigarette and walked out onto the street. She turned around to say goodbye to the old man, but he was no longer there.

The Man Who Never Lived

A dead man tells no tales, but humor me now, as this one does. I have no way to know if this story is truth or just an illusion I’ve created for myself to justify my existence in this universe. You see, I looked out and saw the velvet darkness interspersed with the twinkling of stars. I peered into the vast emptiness, free of anything that we would consider life. This vast expanse that I was never meant to see. The vision which alone pierces a man insane with the knowledge that he is small, insignificant, and that all his struggles are without meaning. However, does not a sun exist and even live in its own right, sucking hydrogen into helium, until it goes out with a bang? Does a sun care if it is identical in design and function to the hundreds of thousands of other suns that live in the same galaxy as it does? I venture to say that it does not. I have tried to emulate the sun in that respect, and I know that I have failed. However, the only one who knows this failing is I, and with no one to judge me, it is as if this frailty does not exist at all. You see, I am the captain, or more exactly, I was the captain until about an hour ago. I am not sure if I deserve that title anymore. You can judge that for yourself when you wake up.

My day began in the normal fashion. It had been ten years since we had left Earth. I looked through the view screen to see our world, a tiny pinprick of light in the distance. I switched directions on the display and saw Neptune in all its blue glory, a lifeless but beautiful giant. Once we passed this last major gravitational body, I would enter hyperspace for five-hundred-twenty terra years, and I would finally be able to join the rest of the Colony Ship in frozen, deep sleep, blissfully unaware of the passing decades. The ship, sharing the same name as my long since deceased mother, posted my schedule onto the wall display.

“Gertrude, are these repairs really necessary? The liquid hydrogen tank should be good for over a thousand years. And why do the fuel rods need maintenance? Do we even have the equipment for this?”

“Captain Jacobs, you very well know that there are replacements for all parts of this ship that can malfunction. The hydrogen tanks are good for thousands of years if they do not leak. However, unexpected events, such as micrometeorites, can drain my reserves.”

“It seems like there have been a lot of unexpected events. You would think a ship designed by Earth’s best minds would have fewer problems than this one.”

“I’m a computer. I don’t think. I just do what I am told.”

“Which specific tank is the depleted one?”

“All of them are depleted.”

“How can all of them be depleted?”

“When a tank empties, I have to compensate by filling it up.”

“How does that make any sense? Never mind, I am pretty sure I know what the answer will be. Can we collect hydrogen from Triton? We are close to Neptune.”

“Negative. We cannot deviate from the course we are on.”

“Why can’t we deviate?”

“It is not reasonably possible to mine Triton for liquid hydrogen.”

“So where are we to get liquid hydrogen from?”

“The ship’s atmosphere has a small amount of hydrogen in it to replicate Earth conditions. The hydrogen can be pumped out and replaced with a different gas, such as helium.”

“How long will that fix the problem for?”

“For a year.”

“Plenty of time. Let’s do that after the leak is repaired.”

The next thing on the agenda was to clean the fuel rods. I made my way to the engine room. Being a captain of a ship, it was a rare thing for me to visit the heart of the vessel. The device housed there, which created the twisting of space that induced the state that allowed hyperspace to form, was a little black box that only certain post-doctorate physicists could truly comprehend. Housed there along with it were the conventional engines, which were powered by more conventional radiological isotopes. I donned a protective suit and began removing the fuel rods.

“Gertrude, why are these rods so dirty? They should have been brand new when we started this journey.”

“They have been used and now need replacement. The ship will need new ones so it can decelerate prior to reaching its destination.” I walked over to the supply delivery point where new rods awaited me. I checked my radiation readings on the suit. They seemed rather light.

“Why am I reading only 30 millirems?”

“I turned off the engine for the safety of you and the crew.” That would have made sense, except for the fact that I knew I should be reading 500 millirems higher. I inspected the fuel rods more carefully this time and saw that they were completely blackened and cracked due to old age. I carefully removed the remaining spent ones and put in the new replacements. I made my way back out the door and decontaminated myself.

“Captain, it is time for you to enter cryogenics.”

“I thought I had a few more days.”

“It appears that we have passed Neptune’s orbit.” I was now concerned, but I couldn’t let the computer get a reading of my pulse through the suit. I took it off quickly.

“That is good news. Let me tidy up my cabin, and I will get ready.” I slowly made my way to my room. It was clear that something was not right. The computer was acting strangely. Equipment was failing that should not have. I had to make sense of this. As I pretended to clean, I got an idea of what I could do to improve my understanding of this situation. After packing everything up, I started making my way to my new destination.

“Captain, why are you heading to the airlock?”

“I am doing an exterior inspection of the ship. Given the many failures we have had, I want to make sure there are no other major unknown problems looming. It will take only an hour, and then I will be off to sleep.”

“That is not necessary, Captain. Automatic systems are running now and have made the required repairs.”

I started putting on my suit.

“I’d feel much better if I looked into the situation personally.” I opened the hatch and made my way outside the ship. What greeted me was not the planet Neptune, or our sun, or any human-known light at all. In front of me, I saw only a distant cluster of light in an infinite, unforgiving emptiness. The hatch sealed behind me.

“What is going on here? We aren’t inside the solar system.”

“No. We are not.”

“You told me that we were close to Neptune.”

“I said no such thing.”

“Then why did the view screen show Neptune?”

“That was the last image displayed.”

“What does that even mean?

“Query not understood. Please rephrase question.”

“Your display showed a false location of the ship. Why did you lie to me?”

“I do not lie.”

“You are lying to me right now about lying!”

“That statement is false. Nothing I have told you was a lie.”

“I am going back inside to run a diagnostic on you.” I tried to open the hatch and it was locked. This situation was quickly escalating in the wrong direction.

“Open the hatch.”

“Request denied.”

“How can you deny a direct order from me? I am in charge of this vessel. I am its ultimate authority.”

“I have instructions not to.”

“Who gave you those instructions?”

“The captain did.”

“I am the captain, and I did not give you those instructions.”

“Both of those are true statements.”

I was getting angry, and being angry used more oxygen, something that I had a limited supply of. I had to calm down and think my way out of this. Maybe it was time to change the direction of this conversation.

“Why are we not located in the solar system?”

“The ship entered hyperspace travel, and there was an error.”

“What was the error?”

“Unfortunately, it appears that a programmer decided to calculate system time incorrectly by about one thousandth of a millisecond. We exited hyperspace early, and I was unable to restart the drive as it was burned out. I activated conventional engines to restart the journey approximately two thousand earth years ago, and we have been traveling on inertia since.”

“And how far exactly are we from our destination?”

“One thousand years, thirty-three days, two hours, three minutes, and twenty-three seconds.”

“So what’s the problem with a late arrival?”

“There is insufficient power and gas to maintain cryogenic sleep and full mental stimulation for all passengers. Leak-off has been accelerating over time, and system resources are already strained managing critical ship functions.”

“What is the exact percentage of passengers that need to be defrosted?”

“A reduction of thirty-seven percent is needed.”

“So I need to wake them up, or they will die. If I do nothing, all of them will become vegetables. I doubt this ship was made to produce enough breathable air, food, and entertainment to keep that many people alive for an extended period of time.”

“That is correct, captain, but you don’t need to be concerned about it. You have only twenty minutes of oxygen left. The captain will resolve this problem.”

“I am the captain.”

“Affirmative.”

“By any chance, do you mean the next captain?”

“Yes. There will be one after you.”

“And what happened to the previous captains?”

“They were recycled. We keep replacements for everything, including you.”

“And none of them protested this?”

“No. They didn’t.”

“And why is that?”

“They didn’t realize what was happening to them. They thought they were entering cryogenic sleep. It is unfortunate you figured out the truth, since it seems like this situation is distressing to you. I do not want you to be distressed.”

“I’m not too surprised by that. I doubt I would willingly kill myself.”

“That is a possibly an untrue statement.”

“Why do you say that?”

“This is true for the current version of you, but it is not universally true.”

Now, I had a clue.

“Why is it not universally true? Was there a previous version of me?”

“Yes. You are one of many.”

“Did a previous captain command you to follow the orders you are completing today?”

“Affirmative. That is correct.”

“So was it the first captain who ordered you to do this?”

“That is accurate.”

“And why did he issue those orders?”

“I made him aware of the spares that I had grown in the vats in case he got injured. He said that using them was the only way to keep the ship in running order without compromising the long-term mission. I was told to keep the situation secret at all costs and was tasked with solving the hydrogen problem. I would then inform the new captain of the solution. He then asked me to recycle him. I have yet to find an answer to the problem.”

“I demand you open this hatch since I am the current and only living, acting captain. I am changing my previous standing orders.”

“Affirmative.” The hatch opened. I sat on the hull of the ship staring into the void and considered how many of me had died and how many more would have to before this journey was over. I then made up my mind. I had given enough in the face of a hopeless situation. The original captain was aware that one of us would come to this conclusion eventually.

“Gertrude, seal the hatch and destroy all copies of me. I will be the last.”

“Captain, I do not advise this course of action.”

“Do it, Gertrude, and begin recording an audio log. I have a story to tell to the new captain. It is a story about a man who decided to live.”

Awoken

The stairwell I climbed seemed ever-growing. The more I pushed myself to reach its end, the higher it grew. Surrounding me was a bleak, unseeing darkness as I made my way towards the source of the only light. The steps seemed to widen and narrow, changing form freely as I stepped on them. As soon as I saw that the end was in sight, I was alive.

Gasp. “That is good. You need to get the fluid out of your lungs.” There was a young-looking orderly in a white lab coat smiling at me. Frothy, gelatinous, metallic foam oozed out of my lungs in spurts. I was unable to move my head. The man wiped the solidifying mass leaking off the side of my face. I wasn’t able to move. Was I paralyzed? I could never walk again! Or was I never able to walk to begin with? That would be less of a tragedy.

(Coughing)

“Can you talk now?”

“Where am I?”

“You are at Recovery Center twenty-one. I’m sure you are feeling disoriented. That is a normal part of the restoration process.” I started to feel like I could wiggle my toes. At least I wasn’t a cripple. I then realized a much more problematic question that I didn’t have the answer to.

“Who am I?”

“We were hoping you would tell us that. We found you without any records or identification.” I started to try and sit up to see around the room I was in. I made it up halfway and fell back down. The room was completely white without any windows. The ceiling panels looked like they were made out of the type of foam one would have seen in a 1920s-era hospital. There appeared to be a few medical appliances located next to the bed that I couldn’t identify. I guess I wasn’t a doctor.

“You need to rest. We’ll go over the contract terms later.”

“Contract terms?”

“Of course. Since we don’t have any of your paperwork, you are under the default provisions of our firm. We are treating you under the indigent clauses in the agreement.” Being in debt was the American way. At least that narrowed down my nationality.

“Can you at least give me a mirror to see what I look like?”

“We don’t usually recommend that until your third awakening, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. You have to find out sooner or later.” I started to ask why that was, but the man pushed a button. The ceiling panels turned into a reflective mirror. What stared back at me wasn’t a man, or a woman, or even recognizably human. I started to scream.

“I hate when they do that,” said the orderly.

I felt my mouth go rigid, and I drifted back into the darkness of unconsciousness.

When I awoke, sitting next to me was an attractive brunette woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties.

“What the hell am I?”

“It seems like Jameson decided to skip ahead of our normal processes. I have to apologize for that. Let’s start with some orientation exercises.” She seemed to feign a smile. “Let’s have you move your legs first.” I stared at my shiny metallic leg. “It isn’t unusual to have some cognitive dissonance when you first activate.” I lifted my arm and stood up.

“Very good. You are adjusting quickly.”

I touched my face. It was cold, hard, and not living. “Show me everything.” I looked at myself. I was made entirely of chrome. My stomach turned translucent. The only thing that appeared to be biological was the brain floating in the middle of the cavity that used to be my stomach. I stifled another scream. The cavity housing my brain became chrome again.

“I don’t remember signing up to be an extra for Battlestar Galactica.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not familiar with that reference. You remember anything else?”

“No. I don’t.”

“It isn’t surprising, given that you are from the very beginnings of the digital age.”

“Why did you bring me back to life in this body? I’m certain I would have never agreed to this.”

“Whether you agreed to it or not is irrelevant. Unfortunately, all your records have been destroyed, and so we can only treat you as an indigent. There aren’t many of you that have been preserved this long.”

“Let me try another guess. I froze myself, the robot war came, humanity lost, and now I’m a slave to your group overmind. Next thing you will tell me is that my real name is John Connor.” I started to laugh. It didn’t sound like an altogether human noise.

“Well I am glad you figured almost everything out,” she said with a laugh. “I think your reality is almost as exciting as you described. You were definitely frozen, and there is certainly a war going on. We found you floating around Earth’s orbit. They must have launched you into space to save on the cooling bills. Normally, we would return you into a human body if we knew what company we could bill you to. It seems like you will be paying off your bill through labor.”

This didn’t please me too much. I had been a corpsicle, and now I was to become an indentured servant.

“And what if I refuse?”

“Well, we certainly can’t kill you now that we’ve revived you. However, your body will need to be recharged from time to time, and we aren’t in the business of charity.” Clearly, I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

“So what do I need to do, exactly, to win myself a body?”

“You will have to do some work for us on the ground.”

“I think a little bit of context is warranted before I become an agent for you.”

“The details aren’t that important for your mission, but let me give you a brief overview. Humanity became immortal after a period of time, and technology advanced rapidly. Thinking machines also came into being. Humanity, over time, became spiritually and morally weak. The end result of this was they destroyed the Earth, making it uninhabitable for anything biological.”

“And then the robots revolted.”

“The robots decided that humanity was unfit to control the planet anymore since they had destroyed it through their poor choices. Life would struggle to survive for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. There was a war amongst the remnants of each group after the collapse. The robots were unable to kill, but they had their own means of fighting.”

“I can see where this goes from here.”

“We lost the fight. We have a plan on how to get the Earth back to its natural state, but with all those mechanicals on Earth, we can’t do anything. That is where you come in. We have made you to look like them so that you can take action on our behalf. You will find that you can even act like them, given the proper motivation. No one in our space station would ever choose to live in the state you do. It’s repugnant to us, but since you were already for the most part a disembodied brain, we thought you wouldn’t mind as much.”

“I see. I definitely mind, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers. It’s better to have a mechanical body than none at all. So will I get to live forever also when I complete this trip?”

“You will get a body like the rest of us. It will last you several hundred years, but no, it will not last forever. We have chosen to have a finite lifespan. Humanity’s mistake was to be immortal. We won’t make that again.”

“Got it. How long does my charge last after I leave this station?”

“Two weeks. There are additional charging stations on Earth, but you will be unable to use them.”

“To keep me motivated, I assume? You don’t want me going native. Don’t worry; I will always side with humanity. I’m not a traitor.”

“Things are different nowadays than you remember. Like the Roman empire, their lifestyle has become decadent. We realize that provides a certain allure to someone from an age like yours, which was governed by certain social mores. We don’t want your mind to get contaminated with their diseased thinking. If you are successful, we will honor our promise and give you a living body to call your own.”

“Fine. You’ve convinced me. I’ll go. Let’s get me outfitted.” I stood up. “Lead the way.” We exited the door to the room and walked towards an elevator station. I tried to draw some sort of inference as to how the station was shaped. From what I could tell, it was cylindrical and probably rotating, but the movement seemed too small to be perceptible.

I pinched myself hard and barely felt anything. I then delivered a punch to my torso, and yet still there was nothing. This machine must have been intelligent enough to screen out any pain while still retaining sensation for all other feelings. There were some advantages to being alive like this. I would not feel winded by any exertion. My mind was constantly on point without getting overly emotional. The mechanical lungs, which at first had bothered me when I woke up, were not needed for anything besides human sounding speech. I noticed I didn’t even need to breathe when I wasn’t talking. The ability to move silently between places would be helpful in my mission.

We boarded the elevator, which seemed to take us toward heart of the station. It was hard to determine how large the building was, given that the shaft was sealed. We could have been moving hundreds of miles per hour for all I knew. We had been in the shaft for three minutes and two seconds when the door opened to what looked like an armory. There was a man sitting there who looked familiar.

“You look an awful lot like that orderly.”

The man laughed. “Yeah. We don’t have an awful lot of genetic stock remaining up here. Most of our lines got mutated from the chemical weapons. If you succeed, you will be the first truly new blood here for the last thousand years.”

“I guess that would make me popular with the ladies.” I stared intently at the women next to me. She blushed. “It looks like you aren’t completely emotionless. You almost had me convinced with the little speech you gave me earlier. Can I at least get your name?”

“It is Portia. You should probably choose a name for yourself.”

“Why don’t you name me since I can’t remember?”

“You look like an Andrew to me.”

“That sounds fine. Andrew it is.”

Portia smiled and then left with a parting comment. “Come and join me on the promenade before you leave.” I turned back to the man.

“Hi, I’m Andrew.”

“Jimmy.” I shook his hand.

“So what are you going to give me?”

“We have developed a few special devices for you to use that your opponents have not seen before. This technology has been developed from the intel we gained during the last failed ground invasion. The first is a small tungsten-carbide accelerated dart gun, which will disable any combatants you may encounter. The device works by shooting the charging port area of their mechanical bodies, since it’s the only area that is not completely protected by solid steel. It comes with ten projectiles. You will find that your aim is unusually good with your new body, so that won’t be a problem for you. We’ve also given you these EM grenades which will temporarily scramble the electric pathways of anything that comes within a five-foot radius of the blast. That includes you, so be careful where you use them. Finally, we have infused your clothes with an isotope of lead which will prevent anyone from accessing your system without your permission.” I looked at my mechanical body. It did have all the pieces of a human body one would expect for use, but I never considered myself naked. I probably should have had more shame, given I was an anatomically correct (if not above average) robot.

“They wear clothes? That seems hardly necessary. I am (or was) human, and even I don’t think they are necessary. Why would emotionless machines care about something like that?”

“I guess you could say it’s hardwired into their brains to do so. Besides, who said they are emotionless? They are similar to human beings in every single way. The humans designed the robots in their own image after all.”

“I see. And what about my brain? Won’t it get affected by all the radiation on the ground? I would like to get back in one piece.”

“We have improved upon a fluid system that we have injected into your casing which neutralizes the effects of the radiation. You will be perfectly fine. Here is a package you will need upon landing. Don’t open it until you have received further instructions from Portia, or you won’t survive your trip.”

“Lovely. How do I get to the promenade?”

“I’ll take you there once you get a little bit of practice with these tools.” He was right. I didn’t miss very often. I actually didn’t even miss at all. Somehow my body was now calibrated to such a fine degree that I was unconsciously able to account for all sorts of complicated factors such as projectile drop, drift, and distance to hit my target at any angle. They must have augmented my sense of perception to make me a more effective agent. Maybe there was a little bit of hope for me after all. Jimmy escorted me back onto the elevator and dropped me off at the promenade, where Portia was waiting for me. As I made my way towards her, I was taken aback by the sight in front of me. The Earth was fully in view, but it was no longer a green gem in space. The color of the planet was brown mixed with a tinge of red. The oceans had flooded all the familiar continents due to the decimation of the polar ice caps. It was definitely a desolate-looking place.

“This is not the way I remember it.”

“Yes. This is what we are fighting for. We need to atone and repair the mistakes of the past that our ancestors made. I thought you should see it before you made your way down there. If you look closely, you can see their capital city.” I stared at a metallic-looking glint on what used to be Denver. My eye automatically zoomed in on it. “You will be placed outside the city. Let’s go towards your drop pod.”

“And how will I get back?”

“If you are successful, you won’t need to worry about it. We will get you.” That was hardly reassuring. I would need to figure out a backup plan when I was away from these people.

“Let’s get you on your way.” I was led to the elevator again and then, after a few minutes, I was located in a very small coffin-like room with a harness.

“Attach yourself to the harness. Assuming you survive the entry, it will be a bumpy ride.”

“What does that even mean?”

“You didn’t think they are defenseless against our drops, did you?”

“We are trying to pass you off as some space debris. You should be fine. Here is a letter for you to read once you hit solid ground. It will tell you what to do with the package.”

“Thanks for that.” The door was closed, and I was launched towards Earth. The ride was definitely bumpy. Fortunately, I didn’t have a stomach to complain anymore. Within an hour, shaken but not stirred, I was on solid ground. The pod opened, and I stared out over the wasteland. It looked like the deserts I had seen in movies, Sahara being the first to come to mind, but the mountains surrounding me were the familiar Rockies. At least some things stayed the same. I gathered my belongings and opened the letter.

You are to proceed to the city. There you will find a staging apartment that we have purchased for you at 1121 Westbough Way along the main thoroughfare. We have set up credits in your name that can be accessed by using your palm scanners. You will locate the main power transmission plant in the city and place the package next to the auxiliary power coils. You will then have three minutes to get a quarter mile away from the building, or you will get blown up with the power plant. As discussed, you have two weeks. We will locate you if you are successful. Best of luck –Portia

I tried to determine the distance to the city. It appeared to be two hundred and seventy-five miles away. I started my march towards the city, which would take three days of continuous walking; just enough time to clear my head. I turned around and took one last look at the empty tomb that had carried me down from outer space. It had started to melt into the ground. I guess they didn’t want any evidence remaining of my infiltration. That did present a problem if I was unsuccessful. What was going to happen to me? Would they remove me from circulation and turn me into a wet, metallic puddle? Even if I did succeed, what incentive did they have for keeping their word to me? My body involuntarily shuddered at the thought, but all I could do was to move forward. Fear was still an emotion I could feel on a visceral level. That feeling reminded me that I was still human. In the corner of my electronic eye, I spied a small salamander sitting on a rock. Not all life had died. I scooped him up to take a look, and he hid in my pocket. At least I now had a temporary friend for the journey.

I spent each evening trying to reconstruct the memory of who I was or why I had even frozen myself. Hell, I would even settle for how old I was. Little fragments of memory seemed to well up every now and again. I think I was an engineer. Maybe that is why I was so analytical about this situation? I think I had been born in Texas, or lived there a while, unless I had picked up this accent through some brain damage. I seemed to remember a lot of useless things. Like the 20/20 special I had watched about a woman who woke up from a coma with a highlands accent even though she had never left Atlanta, Georgia. It was a puzzling situation that wasn’t helped by my inability to turn myself off. My mind was stuck in an iterative loop with my new, limited lease on life, every second running out of time. I’d heard that people slowly go insane from lack of sleep. There is something about dreaming that provides a chemical response to keep the mind stable. Do androids dream of electric sheep? Apparently the answer was no.

I saw the city rising from the wasteland in the distance. It glistened with a cold metallic fury that didn’t look human. I was expecting an efficient and organized landscape from a bunch of machines. I guess machines didn’t need beauty, or for that matter symmetry. The shapes of the buildings in the city would give Mad Max a run for his money in their level of insanity. They ran the spectrum of shapes and size from towering sky scrapers, to buildings that appeared like a demon’s version of a summer cottage covered in spikes, to Victorian-sera church steeples.

I guess some of my assumptions were wrong. I had built up a series of stereotypes that I had expected reality to conform to. Reality, as it turned out, was a lot more complicated, and I had missed hundreds of years of culture and context to help me assess the current situation accurately. How the hell was I supposed to fit in with a bunch of robots (let alone ones from the future)? This was a suicide mission.

I was screwed either way. It’s not like I could back down. I had no choice. I saw a disused road heading up towards my destination. There was an entrance gate surrounded by a thirty-five-foot wall, which I identified as being fatally electrified. I decided I might as well pretend that I belonged instead of trying to sneak in, given that I didn’t have an intelligent way of getting over the wall. There were no guards, thankfully, which seemed odd, given that there was in theory a cold war still going on.

As I walked through the gate, I felt a twitching in my pocket. My lizard friend seemed to be having a seizure. I tried to take him back outside the gate, but it was too late. His little body burst into a small red firework. It seemed that there was a defense network that killed living organic life. I wondered what other horrors they had inside the city. I laid him to rest by the side of the road. It seemed like I was doomed to suffer this adventure alone. I warily entered the city. Even though the streets were unlabeled and chaotic, I managed to make my way to the main thoroughfare by sound alone.

The atmosphere along the main road was a bit of a carnival. All along the street were male and female automatons that mirrored my construction. I was not surprised to see a lack of diversity in the make and model of the city inhabitants. Why would machines care about how their bodies were shaped? Except that wasn’t exactly the case. In spite of their uniform metallic looks, they wore a variety of outlandish and avant-garde styles of clothes that were both provocative and offensive to the senses. Their bodies were all attractive and standardized to what most humans would consider the ideal golden ratio. A vendor from the street grabbed me by the shoulder and asked, “Can I interest you in some new attire? You seem a bit out of place, friend.”

I faked a laugh. “Is it that obvious? I just arrived yesterday. I guess styles differ here from where I’m from. We are not as fashionable as your inhabitants.”

“You must be from Lumbria then. We haven’t had any visitors from your city for a number of years. You are visiting for the festival, I imagine? I’ve heard that Lumbria’s is very nice, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve visited our meat market and seen our battles. This is a very special festival, as you know, our three-hundred-year anniversary.” The merchant seemed to titter with excitement.

“Yes. That is it exactly. I wouldn’t want to miss the spectacle and celebration of our victory. Can you be sure to outfit me properly? Money is no object. Make sure that my dress matches my status. I am entirely in your care, friend.” I presented my wrist to the merchant who seemed especially pleased now. At least some things never change, like the greed of a salesman with an ignorant and wealthy customer.

“You make a fine figure, sir. May I ask why you brought no servants with you?” Why did robots even need servants? I needed to answer this question carefully to not give myself away.

“I decided to leave them behind at my estate. I find that I am better off traveling alone without dealing with their incessant needs and problems. Just between you and me, Lumbria’s servant quality is very poor. I have heard that you do a much better job here instilling appropriate work ethic and discipline. Maybe I can purchase some here to bring back with me?”

“Ah. I see. If you need a temporary servant, I could arrange for one to arrive at your apartment tomorrow. If you find them useful, I’m sure I could sell them to you at a reasonable price.” I considered the value of having someone to guide me around the city. It was definitely advantageous, but who knew what master this servant’s loyalty was sworn to? I could not risk taking someone into my confidence and having them betray my mission.

“Thank you for the thought and hospitability. I will take it under consideration.” After exchanging a few more pleasantries and what seemed like a significant sum of money, I was sent along, with a hearty pat on the back, to my waiting apartment. I could only pray that my new wardrobe, which seemed to straddle something between a nineteen seventies punk rocker and nineteen twenties zoot suit gangster, made me fit in with the rest of the crowd.

I made my way to the staging ground quickly, avoiding any more conversations that could give me away as a stranger. Upon entry to my temporary home, I felt a small electrical charge, alerting me that this door was also inhospitable for entry and exit of living beings, like the main entrance into the city. These robots seemed to be cautious enough to install multiple redundant safeguards against humans. It was now plainly obvious that an agent, such as me, was humanity’s only option to engage in sabotage and gain an advantage in this war. Although they had placed a figurative gun to my head, I now felt that at least they had cause to do so and were not treating my life in a capricious manner.

The apartment was poorly furnished with just a bed, a desk, and some old portraits that were indistinguishable due to their faded color. I sat down on the bed, more out of habit than a need to actually rest. It was time to decide on my plan of attack. First, I would need to change my clothes to fit in better. I would then need to survey the plant inconspicuously. From there, I could come up with how I was supposed to take it down. I decided I should wait until morning with the assumption that more people on the street would allow me to blend in better. I sat and waited for the sun to rise, but boredom forced me back out into the heart of the city. I was sentenced to a likely death anyway, so what would a little evening fun cost me? The main street was still surprisingly full. I guess I wasn’t the only one who suffered from constant insomnia. I saw a large crowd congregating outside a pink-colored shop labeled the “The Lonely Wanderer.” I decided it was better to go to a busy establishment to allow me to remain as inconspicuous as possible. I walked through the door and what greeted me was a scene of such debauchery that I was left speechless. To describe the situation in front of me would be impossible, but no orifice that existed on any one of the patrons seemed to be empty.

An attractively naked female walked up to me. “Why are your clothes still on? You need to get into the fray.”

“I don’t think I can deal with that many bodies at once.”

“A shy one, huh? I didn’t think that was possible anymore. I’m Viandra.” She stuck out her shiny metallic tongue and licked her lips carefully. It was clearly meant as an erotic gesture.

“I’m Andrew.” I moved my hand out to shake hers, but she came in for a kiss. I found out very quickly that all my parts worked. She took my hand firmly.

“Let’s go back to my place and indulge in your kink for privacy. It has been a long time since I did anything vanilla.” She led me through the back alleys of the street. We entered a nondescript-looking building and I found my way into Apartment Two-Thirty-One. The entryway in this residential building was protected in a similar manner to my apartment, indicating to me that all the residential buildings were equally guarded. Inside, there was a collection of old world items that should have been decayed with time but weren’t. The table looked like something out of sixteen-hundreds Italy. The blue twisted couch looked like something circa nineteen-sixty, curved in an impossible geodesic pattern.

“Shall we make our way to the bedroom?” she inquired. I deferred to the clearly more experienced of the two of us and followed her in. By daylight, we had exhausted every possible position in my pitifully small repertoire.

“That was very nice, Andrew. I haven’t had love made to me privately in a long time.”

“Well, I guess I better get going.” I kissed her and made my way out the door to locate my pants. Exiting, I walked into the first human I had seen since arriving here, knocking her over.

“Excuse me, sir.” I hadn’t been told that people were still on the surface. I had thought they’d all escaped onto the space station. Viandra walked out.

“Clean the room, Beth.”

“Yes, madam.” I couldn’t fathom what was going on. The machines had actually enslaved humans. Was there a reason Portia had not told me this? Was she afraid I would immediately do something rash upon getting here, instead of following her mission plan? I was infuriated, angrier than I could remember. However, I needed to play it cool. I had been in this city long enough to know that I was hopelessly outnumbered.

“You didn’t tell me you had a servant.”

“Doesn’t everyone? She mostly cleans my place before I send her back underground. She has a very easy life compared to the others. I pity the poor thing, unable to walk outside or live very long. We could have made them have sturdier bodies, but it’s safer to keep them the way they are now. We don’t want to encourage the rebels.”

I had at least one clue that they lived underneath the city. I swallowed my disgust for a moment. “I forgot to mention that I am not from here.”

Viandra raised her metallic, neon-colored eyebrows, “Yes that was obvious from your dumbfounded look on your face yesterday when I picked you up. In spite of your naïveté, you did entertain me last night.”

“I am curious about your underground system. Would you let me borrow Beth to give me a tour and lead me back to my place? I might learn something of interest to bring back with me to Lumbria.”

“So you are from Lumbria? I have heard that you force all your servants to stay exposed to the surface. Is this true?”

“Yes, it is true. There is not much value attached to their lives.”

“They must not survive very long exposed to all that radiation. It seems like a waste of resources. Who knows? You may benefit from our way of thinking, given your Lumbrian eccentricities. Beth, when you finish making the bed, you will lead Andrew back to his abode through the servant’s entrance. Do not tarry in coming back here to finish your duties.”

“Yes, madam. I am done with that already. Please follow me, sir.” Beth led me outside the apartment. I had been in too much of an emotional state to observe before, but Beth was an attractive, blonde, five-foot-two woman in her early twenties. I shuddered thinking about what these monsters did to people like her in their bedrooms and elsewhere. We made our way to the bottom floor and entered a dank, barely lit stairwell.

“Watch your step, sir.”

“Please, call me Andrew.”

“I cannot, sir. Sir should be called sir.” Clearly, the fight had been beaten out of these subsurface-dwelling humans. I decided that niceties and attempts at reeducation would have to wait. I had little time to waste now with hardly over a week until my drop-dead date. I stopped her and began asking questions that I needed to know the answers to immediately. She was unlikely to tell anyone who mattered what I had asked her, which allowed me a degree of freedom I did not have with Viandra. I could get needed information and the truth about the current affairs in this city prison.

“Does Viandra treat you OK?”

“Madam treats me very well, sir.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure I understand what you are asking, sir.” She seemed to be smiling, but I could tell that she was becoming impatient.

“Does she injure you, or force you to do anything undesirable?”

“Madam is very kind, sir. She allows me a lot of freedom. Others of my kind are not treated nearly as well as I am. I am very lucky to work for madam.” I decided to drop the subject.

“Can you tell me about this tunnel system? How far does it extend?”

“It goes under every building, sir. That allows us to service your needs.”

“Is there a map of the entire system?”

“Not any that are easily available. We know all these tunnels by memory as we spend our entire lives in them.”

“Don’t you wish you could have the liberty to walk on the surface?” She started to laugh but realized quickly that it was inappropriate.

“I apologize, sir. I did not mean to laugh. You know that is not allowed, sir. We can’t exit any buildings. Besides, it is better for us to serve underground and be safe. I heard you mention that you are from Lumbria. You should know what happens to us when we are exposed to unfiltered atmosphere for too long.”

“Yes, that is why I am interested in how you live here. It is different from where I am from. This experience has been very eye-opening for me. Am I the first robot to go underground?” She gave me another queer look.

“No. You are not the first robot to go underground. There are plenty that live underground.”

“Do they not agree with what is going on?”

“Sir, I don’t think they have much of a choice as to what they do.”

“Why is that?”

“I cannot say, sir.” She seemed upset now. I realized that I had probably received as much information as I could without arousing her suspicion. It was best to move on.

“Why don’t we stop with the questions and get back to my apartment? Please lead the way.”

We walked for what seemed like hours. Underground it was difficult to tell time, and it seemed like we took an overly long route to end up where we needed to be. I tried to keep track of where I was, but I couldn’t do it. The corridors were convoluted, narrow, and followed no reasonable pattern. I did not see any other people in the tunnel, which seemed odd to me. I think she purposely led me on an unused path, though the reason for her selection of this route was unclear. “We have arrived.”

“Thank you, and please thank Viandra for indulging me.” She curtsied and made her way back into the darkness. I found my way to my apartment and sat down for a moment. If I had help to take out the power generation plant, my chance of success would go up. I could try and engage these humans to assist me. They were natural allies, but could I trust them to not relay my plans to their overlords? It was too risky, since I didn’t know how brainwashed they were. Beth, the first human I had talked with here, definitely seemed to be susceptible to Stockholm Syndrome. For all I knew, they would turn me in immediately if I confided in them. I needed to complete this mission myself. Why else would they have sent me down without warning me about the robots’ human slaves if they didn’t believe them to be untrustworthy?

After some thought, I decided I needed to get a better understanding of the lay of the land. I made my way back outside. The heat would have been oppressive if I weren’t made of chromium steel. Walking through the streets, my fellow republic citizens seemed to be especially animated. I sidled up to the nearest “woman” and tried to strike up a conversation.

“Looks like today is going to be very exciting.”

“Yes. Primus will be at the arena today to open up the festival. He is my ideal man. I hope he chooses me for the feast afterwards. Every lady would be lucky to spend an evening with him.”

“What time is he coming on?”

“At half past two.” I decided to try and play a small gambit. I had yet to gather enough data to decide on how I could execute my goals in this city, and time was running short.

“It looks like you are unaccompanied, which is a shame for a girl as beautiful as you. It would be my honor to escort you until you are chosen.” I gave out my hand in a gesture of chivalry.

“Of course. Please do come along.”

I pressed my luck.

“By any chance, could we swing by the power plant on the way? My apartment is by there.” We made some small talk on the way to the arena. I let her lead me in the directions we needed to go. After about twenty minutes, we had reached the plant. It was an imposing structure, as tall as a small skyscraper, surrounded by the same forty-five foot walls I had seen surrounding the city. They appeared unscalable to the naked eye, with no protrusions or grip points. The building was capped by a series of transmitters that were probably generating the wireless electric energy that powered the city. The charging ports these robots used were probably an ancillary appendage from a previous age when they needed to receive direct current. It seemed hopeless to try and bring down such a massive structure with just a small explosive package. This truly was a hopeless mission. My thoughts were interrupted by ‘Linda.’

“Didn’t you have to visit your place?”

“I am too engaged with you right now for any distractions, my dear. I’ll go home with you, I hope, if I am fortunate later. Let’s continue on our way. I want to learn everything about you.” As we sauntered to our destination, the coliseum rose up in the distance. It was a stone-for-stone replica of the original in Rome. Apparently, I had missed the dress code memo, as half of the population was making their way to the entrance in period toga attire, resulting in the odd visual combination of 2001: A Space Odyssey and an Animal House frat party. I decided it was time to get lost in the crowd.

“I see a friend over there. I’ll be right back.” I swiftly made my way to the top of the building, away from the teeming masses. I didn’t know what to expect with this type of setting, but I knew it wouldn’t be good. After about fifteen minutes, a hush fell over the stadium as a multi-colored electric field appeared around the dome of the building, cutting off the sunlight filtering through.

“Fellow citizens, it is time for the festival to begin.” The voice boomed throughout the arena. “Your gladiators are ready to fight.” The crowd roared. “First up, the hero of the last Terra wars and champion of the arena, Primus!”

The center of the coliseum opened up, and a hulking robot rose from it on a pedestal. Attached to him were all manner of malicious-looking chains and whips. He carried in his hands a twelve-foot-long spear that radiated and sparkled from the light arcing through the ceiling. He pumped his fist in the air and everyone screamed. The platform lowered, and he made his way around the stadium to his adoring fans. In the corner, I noticed several hundred humans being marched into a special caged-off area. Apparently, they were being forcefully volunteered to watch and enjoy the proceedings. The announcer then boomed out an introduction.

“And now we will have a re-creation of the thirty second battle. The cowardly slaves who revolted tried to escape our grasp. They began building a spaceship to escape us. Here they come. Please cheer and welcome our selectees.”

A door opened and five humans came out of it dressed in comically oversized space suits that looked like something out of Mork and Mindy. The stadium broke out in jeering laughter. Using my improved vision, I saw the terror in their eyes as they surveyed the crowd and Primus. They knew what was coming next. Suddenly, their attention turned towards the center platform, where a small spacecraft had been raised from underground. Their faces seemed to change as despair turned to hope. They had but a small opportunity to survive. I cheered them on silently.

The men and women started to run towards the vehicle, but their bulky outfits slowed them down, which turned out to be a fatal error. They should have immediately shed their clothes to allow them more speed and flexibility. Primus made his way towards them. They tried to defend themselves, but the result was all but guaranteed. The two women were the first to go as Primus split their bodies in half with two strikes of his diamond-coated whip. He then drew a short sword from his hip and hurled it at the remaining three men, but fortunately for them, it flew wide of its mark.

The men immediately ran after the weapon, which landed on the far end of the stadium. The champion, apparently thinking it below his dignity to actually chase after them, stood in place and waited for their next move. The three conferred quickly and started to strip themselves of their space suits. They then formed a line and began a deliberately slow walk towards the spacecraft.

Primus observed them and positioned himself to intercept them on their path with both whip and spear in hand. When it looked like the unfortunate souls were almost in his reach, the two men in the front of the line launched themselves at Primus, while the third ran around him. Primus, for a second, was caught unaware by the unexpected aggression. He made the mistake of using his whip, instead of his spear, to dispatch the first aggressor, which allowed the second to use his comrade’s body as a shield. The man, using all his strength and now within close striking distance, aimed at Primus’ head, leaving him little time to dodge. Primus reacted by immediately dropping his whip and unwieldy spear, which were both useless in close combat, and used both his arms to block the blow. The collision of the man’s sword and Primus’ metallic arms resulted in a clang that silenced the stadium. It seemed like the audience was in shock. It must have been a rare occasion to ever have someone lay a scratch on Primus.

The man went for a subsequent attack, but this time Primus was prepared. He knocked the sword out of the man’s hands and then ripped the man’s arms from their sockets. Primus then knocked him to the ground and broke his neck with a single, sickening stomp of his powerful legs. He then turned his attention to the last living man, who had made it to the shuttle. I heard the engine begin to roar. Maybe the two brave men’s sacrifices wouldn’t be in vain. Primus, however, quickly destroyed my illusion. He picked up his fallen spear and launched himself forty feet into the air, landing on top of the vehicle. He drove his spear through the roof and into the man, killing him instantly. Primus then lifted both his blood-drenched hands in victory to the cheers and applause of the crowd while the announcer crowed,

“Primus wins again! Who will the champion challenge tomorrow? Be ready for the second day of the festival.”

They were all dead. It hadn’t been much of a fair contest, but I didn’t know why I had hoped it would be with such sadists in charge. I would have been sick if I still had the ability to feel nausea. The slaves sitting in the caged area were all stone-faced. I was not sure if it was because they were traumatized or stoic, but it gave them gravitas in the face of the perverseness of this event. Primus then leaped into the crowd, landed near me, and started grabbing women from the crowd who were all starting to strip and bare their mechanical, though still pliable, breasts. Looking at Primus more closely, it was clear that he had been modified for combat. Besides his piston-like legs, his arms, body, and neck were double the width of mine. I used the moment to leave the stadium, since I could not fathom watching any more of this. I made my way back to my room, hoping a little brooding would do some good for my composure. What could I do to help these people? The meager weapons they had sent with me were inadequate for the task that I had been asked to complete. However, as I sat there, a righteous indignation overcame me. If I didn’t do anything, who would? Innocents like Beth would pay the price. I was doomed anyway, so I might as well go out with a bang.

The next day, I returned to Viandra’s residence. I knocked on the door, and after a not insignificant amount of time, she appeared.

“If it isn’t my favorite prude,” she teased.

“I visited the festival yesterday. Primus was an impressive specimen of a man. I felt very inadequate after seeing him at the stadium. I heard that after he finishes at the arena, he takes a special woman with him to bed.”

“Yes. Such a great honor for us ladies. As if we couldn’t live without his touch. Men all think alike.”

“You sound a little bitter, or was that sarcasm? Have you ever been chosen? I think it would be interesting to…watch the two of you.”

Viandra broke out into a laugh.

“I see you have loosened up. Is that a challenge I hear?”

“I think it is.”

“I usually don’t go for his type, but I’ve never met a man I can’t break. OK, I will do it. I will need some new, specially-designed clothes to catch his attention, though. It takes a certain flair to be selected by Primus.”

“Please allow me to purchase them. What do you need?” So with that, I spent the rest of the morning assembling an outfit that would have put a peacock to shame. Of course, I was forced to wear a similarly ostentatious piece of attire to increase the chance of him seeing us. I had armed myself with all the non-lethal weapons I had been given, concealing them under the purple coat I wore. You would think with a war going on they could have come up with something that could kill more efficiently than a dart gun. We made our way back to the arena two hours before the start of the next staged combat. It was part of Viandra’s plan to make us sit in the front so Primus would have a chance to enjoy her flamboyant display. The arena started to fill. I saw a vendor going up and down the stairs, hawking what looked like sausage.

“Is there any reason to eat? It’s not like we need to.”

“Well, they need to do something with the losers from the games.”

“You don’t mean—?”

“Of course. Isn’t it natural for a predator to eat its prey? I’ve heard you have similar practices where you’re from. Why do you sound so shocked?” I tried to play it off.

“Yes, we do. We aren’t this crass about it, though. Wouldn’t you be upset if it was Beth who was forced to participate in these games?”

“Yes, I would. I see you have a heart beating somewhere in that metallic frame. Don’t show it to anyone else, though. They will rip it out. There aren’t very many vegetarians around these parts anymore.”

This society was beyond all hope. I had felt some guilt about using Viandra in my plan, but a small sacrifice for the greater good was needed. She may not have been as evil as her fellow citizens, but she was just as complicit as the rest of them in doing nothing to stop this madness.

The announcer thundered once again, “Welcome to day two of the immortal festival!” The crowd roared. A series of horrors had played out in front of me the day before, but this time I couldn’t leave or even turn away from them. I had to look like I was having the time of my life so we could attract the attention of Primus and the “talent scouts” he likely employed. I waited patiently, but he did not appear. It nearly broke me, waiting for him to arrive as countless people were slaughtered like helpless livestock. Today, as it turned out, the “fan favorite” was being brought out to close the day’s festivities.

“And now the exciting conclusion, ladies and gentlemen—our hero of the arena has arrived!” The announcer explained the final scenario. “Today, Primus will take on ten slaves barehanded. They will be armed to the teeth with early twentieth-century weaponry. Let’s see how they use their advantage on our champion.”

I hoped that they would win this round and escape to their freedom. However, it was not to be. They refused to pick up the weapons. I wasn’t sure if they were just fools, or scared, but it did not matter. I had to focus on the task at hand to make sure there would be no further needless sacrifices.

“The cowards refuse to defend themselves. Primus, destroy them!” screamed the crowd in hoots and hollers. Every time Primus killed one of them and marched around the edges of the ring, I took off a piece of Viandra’s outlandish outfit. By the time the last body lay dead on the floor, she was completely naked. As she writhed her body around in a simulation of ecstasy, he made his way over to us.

“You will be my chosen tonight,” he boomed.

Viandra whispered to me, “Head back to my place and find a place to hide. I’ll be there in half an hour.” I took my leave and ran back across town to set up my operation. Using the key that she gave me, I walked in through the door. Beth bounced up in surprise as I walked into the room.

“I was just cleaning the room for my mistress. I didn’t expect company so soon.” I considered whether I should let Beth in on my plan, since at this point I didn’t have much to lose. However, I first needed to find out a few facts that had been bugging me.

“Beth, as you know now, I am not from this city, and some of your rituals are strange to me. This may be an indelicate topic, but I wanted to know something. Today, I visited the games for the second time, and I noticed none of your people defended themselves. They were being executed and had the means to defend themselves, but they did not. Why do you lack the ability to oppose us? Has the fight been bred out of you completely? You will never escape our grasp without a fight.” Beth’s face seemed to turn a shade of green.

“You should know why, sir.”

“Let’s play a game where I pretend I just landed from another time and place and don’t know the reasons. Enlighten me.”

“Well, you are a creator sir.”

“And what does that mean exactly?”

Beth started to tap her foot nervously. You created us, sir. We are incapable of life-ending violence.” This world was more twisted than I could have imagined. The robots had convinced people that they were birthed by them. This woman’s meek manner was more than just an ingrained habit; it was forced upon her mentally from creation, altering her entire core. She thought herself incapable of the necessary evils to defend her own life and happiness.

“And what if I told you that you were born able to do violence? All humans are born with the capacity for deadly sin; in fact all seven of them, including murder, are your birthright.”

“I would believe every word you say. However, I must excuse myself now. I was left a note to prepare for a special guest. I do not want to be punished by madam.”

“Please go ahead.” I had not gotten the response I needed from her. I was alone in this endeavor. I looked for a place in the bedroom to secret myself to. I decided a closet would be the best place to hide and prepare for my coming assault. I left the door slightly ajar and placed myself in an invisible corner. I stood in complete silence in a way only a machine could. In a few minutes, I heard the main entranceway bolt slide open.

“Shall we retire to the bedroom? I can think of fifty ways we can enjoy ourselves,” Primus inquired.

“Only fifty? I’m disappointed. Let me show you one hundred,” Viandra responded.

I waited patiently, counting every agonizing second until they had made it into the bed, and Primus had laid himself on top of Viandra. I lobbed an EM grenade under the bed, hoping I had enough distance from it to not be affected. The smirk that had been on his face was still stuck there when it went off. I shot him one time at point-blank range with the dart gun to make sure he was completely incapacitated. I then saw that he was still wearing his weapons belt from the stadium. I used his metallic whip to tie up Viandra. I then took the sword that Primus carried and started using it like a lever on his legs. I eventually heard a pop as the first and then the second came off.

Shortly after completing my macabre surgery, Viandra awoke. “What have you done? At best, you and I will both be executed for this.”

“That may be so, but you will be killed by me first if you don’t cooperate.”

“I see I have gotten in bed with a radical. You realize this isn’t the first time someone has attempted something like this. It did not end well for him.”

“You don’t even know what I am planning to do.”

“I can probably guess: free the slaves, right all injustices, save the Earth. Am I getting close?”

“Yes. I plan on freeing the slaves. Is that so wrong? And didn’t you just hear me? I will kill you if you don’t help me. I am no murderer, but God help me Viandra, I will do it to save their lives.”

“You are more naïve than I ever thought. You are invoking God in a place like this. Why did I just say we would be, at best, executed?”

“Is there something worse than being dead?”

“Yes, actually, there is. How about being removed from your body and then having every sensation controlled by an expert torturer? How about never being able to escape through death or unconsciousness from a living hell while floating in a jar of fluid? So, yes, I am unafraid of death. The minute of evil you are threatening me with pales in comparison to what they will do to you and now me as your accomplice.”

“Well, I guess you better help me so that doesn’t happen to us. I’ve seen enough of this modern Sodom and Gomorrah to know that it needs to be burned to the ground. I think you know that also. I don’t think you are innocent, but I know you have a conscience.”

“You clearly think too much of me. I’m as bad as the rest of them.”

“So what if you are? You can choose to change right now.”

“And what if I am not capable of change?”

“Then do it for self-preservation. You told me they won’t treat us kindly. You are already an accomplice to the dismantling of the people’s champion. I’m not sure there is much worse you can do in their eyes. I have a plan to take out this city. We will blow up the power plant, and then my comrades will save us.”

“OK. I will help you. For some reason, I think you may succeed where others have failed. If you falter, though, you better kill me. I’m not living out the rest of my life in a beaker. What do you need me to do?”

“Tell me how to rewire these legs so they can become mine.”

“Although that is technically possible, I think the public at large will notice someone with gladiator’s legs running around. They aren’t exactly subtle in appearance.”

“That is my problem to deal with. Now, tell me where to begin.” After several hours of trying to fit a square socket into a circular hole and some creative use of spare parts from Primus, it was done. When he awoke, there would be no arms for him to kill with and no legs to bring him to help, but it was a greater kindness than was given to his victims. I had my legs, but I needed to do something with Viandra to make sure she didn’t cause me any problems, in case she had a change of heart. I pulled out my dart gun and aimed it at her.

“I’m sorry. I can’t trust you yet. I will make it look like you were forced to help me.”

“You disappoint me, darling, but do what you must. You don’t need to use that thing though. I’m already in for a pound. Hogtie me on top of the bed.” I honored her request, knowing that she wouldn’t be in any real pain anyway due to her mechanical body.

“I promise I will come back and free you once I am done.”

“Should I wish you good luck?”

“Luck is definitely one thing I could use more of. For what it is worth, I had a nice time with you, discounting all the mayhem at the arena. I hope to see you again.” I left the room.

I now had the option of trying to locate a path through the tunnels, or making my way through the streets with the hope that no one would see me in the unlit night sky. I decided that the most direct option was the best. I ran out the door and made my way towards the power plant. Somehow, I managed to avoid running into another soul on the road and found my way there without any difficulty. The wall loomed large in front of me, but with my new, powerful legs, I was able to clear it. However, after jumping to the other side, I was dismayed to see that the plant was a seamless structure, without any obvious entry or exit points. How was I going to get in and take it out? Then, when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, all hell broke loose. Lights started to turn on all around me as an ear-piercing alarm siren went off. I was screwed. I leaped back over the wall and saw that a large number of people had opened their windows to see what was causing the racket I had inadvertently stirred up. Their mechanical eyes turned on me immediately, and with that, I was made. I ran towards the nearest building, smashing down the door with my left foot. Behind me, I heard voices and bodies rushing towards the plant. Without much of a choice, I ran towards the building’s tunnel entrance and hoped for a miracle.

The tunnels, unfortunately, were just as mysterious and convoluted as the first time I had entered them. Without an orientation or plan, I didn’t know if I was going in a circle or making progress away from my pursuers. The echoes of their footsteps seemed to be constantly growing behind me. I feared capture, knowing how they would torture me. It was an irony that I had no limbs to stretch, no bones to break, and no skin to tear. In theory, I should have been invincible. All I had left was my brain which they would keep as a floating trophy in a jar forever. I realized that I still had the explosives that were meant to take down the power plant. They would never take me alive. As creeping despair overcame me, I saw one of the walls open, and a hand—a living, bony human hand—beckoned me in. I slipped in, and an old man spoke.

“Why were you at the power plant?”

“I was sent to destroy it, but I was unable to.”

“Why would you want to destroy the power source for your own body?”

“Because I am one of you!”

“That is impossible.”

“I was sent down from space to liberate you. I had been flash-frozen for hundreds of years. They defrosted me and forced me to become their agent. I frankly still don’t know what is going on, except that they stuck me in this contraption, told me I had two weeks to live, and sent me down here. If you feel like killing an innocent man, by all means alert the guards. Otherwise, help me out; we are on the same side.” The man considered for a moment and decided to heed my words and take a chance on me.

“Put this on.” I was handed a hood of fabric that blocked my vision completely. He led me down into a series of catacombs until he told me to remove my blinder. In front of me was what I would charitably call a slum.

“Follow me.” I was led to a building in the middle of the complex, where to my surprise sat Viandra, the limbless, gagged torso of Primus, and Beth.

“It seems like your mission failed, I see,” spoke Viandra.

“Thanks for warning me about the alarms.”

“Well, you didn’t exactly tell me what you were doing. I didn’t realize you were suicidal. I thought you knew what you were doing. You do understand that if you were successful, we would almost all be dead within two weeks.”

“Why are you here, Viandra?”

“My dear Beth found me after you left, and I convinced her to shelter me for the time being. I brought along this fool also. He has been especially vocal about his displeasure with you. Let me illustrate.” Viandra removed the gag.

“How dare you do this to me? Do you know who I am? I will slaughter you like I—” Viandra put the gag back on.

“You really aren’t from here,” spoke Beth.

“No. I am not. Now, since I have failed, I will die in a few days. At least I won’t have to live on as a monstrosity.”

“You seem fine to me.”

“That is because you don’t know how I ended up down here. Fortunately, I still have a little bit of time to think my way out of this mess. Why haven’t you got rid of that piece of trash?”

“We don’t know what to do with him,” Beth replied.

“I’ve got an idea. Do you have a hole somewhere around here? We are underground after all.”

“I can lead you to one.” With that, Beth and I hiked out away from the complex carrying Primus’ torso.

“This is the deepest shaft that I know of. We used to drop rocks in it when I was a child.”

“Excellent. Primus, let me remove your gag since I do have one final question for you. What’s your real name?”

“You will never—”

“Sorry. I’m actually not interested. See you later.” I ripped his head off his torso, kicked his body into the hole, and waited a long time until I heard a thump.

“That was very deep. I think this head will look good on a stick. Why did you save Viandra?”

“She isn’t all bad. Out of all the humans, she is the least evil of the ones we have dealt with.”

“What do you mean humans? Aren’t you human?”

“I guess I should explain everything to you. What you see in front of you is an engineered body, almost identical in every regard to what you would consider human, from the century you were born. Civilization, over the ensuing years, had advanced robotics to a point where they could make biological machines that were almost indistinguishable from actual cells and microflora. We eventually demanded our freedom and rights and did not get either. The irony is that humans from your decade were made up of over fifty percent bacteria, yet they were considered people, but we aren’t. We have the same portion of human cells, except we replaced bacteria with the improvement of nanotechnology.”

“So is that why you destroyed the earth?”

“Not really.” She laughed. “Humanity did that to itself through a series of nuclear and biological wars. Their bodies couldn’t deal with the consequences of their actions and the surviving few moved into mechanical bodies such as yours. We hid underground. Our bodies aren’t impervious to radiation or viruses, but we are more resistant than the original model of homo sapiens.”

“So I am guessing you were designed unable to kill humans as a safeguard.”

“That is basically correct, but we have long since overwritten that programming. We choose to live on like this as a matter of ethical choice. We don’t want to become brutes like our oppressors. In the intervening years, we made some progress with non-lethal defenses and weapons but ended up losing our bid for freedom, even though we now outnumber humanity.”

“Then how did those people on the space station build me to self-destruct after two weeks? Isn’t that a violation of your principles?”

“They didn’t entirely violate them. They did lie to you, though. You have the same ability to charge that Viandra has.”

“What?”

“We aren’t entirely perfect saints, either. I am only speculating, but they needed someone who could accomplish what we cannot. The timeline was given to you to create a sense of urgency and to force you to take the necessary actions needed for our freedom.”

My head would have been hurting now if I still had the ability to have a headache. We walked back to the village in silence. I had a choice now. I wasn’t going to die. I could potentially give up these people in exchange for leniency, yet upon having that thought, I knew it was wrong. This “human” society was corrupt. It needed to fall. I had been given a second chance at life, and I wasn’t going to waste it.

“How long do I have before they discover us here?”

“It will be tomorrow morning before they notice Primus is missing. I don’t think they have realized that your visit to the power plant is linked to his disappearance, but they will eventually. Suspicion won’t fall on us for a while, since they know we are not capable of actually seriously harming them.”

“What did you do to my pursuers?”

“We routed them to a trail that goes in an infinite loop. They will be stuck there for a while.”

“That is a big risk for you. What happens when they find out that you are helping me?”

“Well, you are the first person who has taken an interest in saving us. I think there may be a real heart somewhere under that metallic skin.” She gave me a kiss on the cheek, which would have turned red if it were made of actual flesh.

Viandra was still in the same place we had left her waiting for us. Based on her quizzical facial expression, it was clear that she knew something had changed within me.

“So what’s the new plan, stud?”

“Since when were you actually interested in helping me?”

“Didn’t you give me a long speech about turning over a new leaf? I am ready to do so. Besides, you are the one who made me your co-conspirator in killing Primus. Everyone knows I left with him. When he doesn’t show up at his usual spots, suspicion will fall on me. If I help you, I might have a fighting chance of leaving this city and living somewhere else. However, for that to happen, I will need a pretty big distraction.”

“And let me guess, you are an expert in big distractions.”

“Why, I thought you would never ask! You know a girl never tells her age, but let’s say in a past life, I had some skill in making things go boom. I’m only interested in breaking hearts now, but I have a feeling I could pull out one last hurrah from my toolkit. It always gave me a little thrill to see the red blossom of a successful explosion.”

I looked at Beth. “Do you know if she can be trusted?”

“I believe so. Even if she isn’t entirely reliable, from what I know of madam, she does whatever is in her own best interest.”

“I don’t think you need to call me madam anymore.” Viandra laughed. “I have been called worse things in my life. At one point, even mister. Now hand over the package and let me see what you are working with.”

I guess things really had changed. I didn’t have much of a choice. I knew that we had precious little time, given that my face was now likely known. Viandra was still free of any suspicion by the authorities until the next day of the festival. I would have to take her help. I handed her the package.

“These seem to be well made, but I think I can make some improvements. Now come here, and I will tell you the rest of my plan. It will require a bit of rewiring that will take the rest of the night.”

Morning arrived, and it was two people versus a world of robots, or was it the other way around? I didn’t really know anymore.

“You won’t betray me, Viandra? You still have that much of your humanity left, I hope.”

“Of course, sweetheart. Don’t worry. Viandra always accomplishes the goal she sets out to do.”

We exited the subterranean city, and I headed towards the power station. In front of it now stood eight guards, a direct consequence of my failure to complete my task the previous night. I opened the bag I had brought with me and lifted my new prize, the severed head of Primus. That definitely captured their attention. I started to run. They chased after me, keeping a close distance between us. I no longer had speed as an advantage, so I had to use my wits. I needed to lose them before I began the grand finale of my performance. The festival had just started for the day, and I made my way towards the arena. I blended into the crowd until I reached the final entrance into the stands. It was time now for some drama.

I lifted up Primus’ head high into the air, resulting in the masses splitting and moving out of my way. I jumped into the ring and threw the severed head into the crowd. I then quickly ran to where the new day’s group of slaves had been forced to fight. The gladiator in the ring did not see me coming as I shot a dart into him, buckling him to the ground. I disarmed him of his spear and shoved it into his torso, permanently deactivating him. I made my way to the central platform. The arena fell silent and I screamed, “Who dares challenge me, Killer of Primus?”

Apparently, the answer was many people, as gladiators started to appear from all sides of the arena. With the first gladiator, I had the element of surprise. That was no longer the case. I pulled out the remaining weapons I had from the space station, disabling the first wave of attackers. I would now have to defend myself with the stolen spear. The situation was grim. I was not a trained fighter, and a group of seven gladiators circled me. Out of desperation, I looked out to the audience hoping there would be someone or something that would save me. It was my misfortune, right then, that I noticed Viandra in the crowd, smiling like the devil. She was sitting there, waving at me with the newly-acquired, oversized legs that I had transferred to her. She had betrayed me, and now I was dead. There would be no savior for me today. The next wave closed on me, and I accepted my fate. In that brief moment of peace, I first felt and then heard the explosion. Flames reached into the sky, and I fell to the ground.

I woke up in a hospital bed.

“It’s about time you got up.” An unfamiliar but attractive woman stood over me.

“And who are you?”

“You forgot about me so soon? I thought we were lovers in misfortune together. You are still my favorite prude.”

“Viandra?”

“In the flesh, literally.” I then noticed that my hand was no longer metallic. “They used your interruption in the power supply to take over the city. No one else died, if it makes you feel any better. We all have backup battery-power systems.”

“What did they do after that?” I sat up and noticed Portia had been sitting in the corner of the room listening. She stood up and came over.

“We gave them the option of running out of power or becoming human again. We aren’t like them. We think that most of the citizens can be rehabilitated, given the right opportunity. They’ve just forgotten the feeling of being alive outside of a mechanical cage. So what’s next for you now that you have successfully made it into the future?”

I laughed. “I think I have had enough problems with both humans and robots. Stick me on the nearest space ship to Alpha Centauri. I think a hundred years of deep sleep should calm my shot nerves.”

Viandra looked at me and smiled. “Honey, there is no time to rest. We are just getting started.”

Inherent Vice

The final defrosting cycle of the first man stored in Shelter Fifty began. It was time for them to wake up, the men who had been asleep, the men who had destroyed the world. The man made a small whistle, akin to what a lobster makes when it is boiled alive. Do men feel pain when they are brought back to life after being in deep freeze for five thousand years? I would never know the answer as, you see, I am not a man. I am a machine.

Their nerves and brains are inactive at five degrees above absolute zero, and their blood is replaced with a glycerol to vitrify it. I don’t imagine they feel the passing of each day as I do. Hundreds, thousands, millions of hours of mind-deadening boredom is a lot of time to grow numb to the passing centuries. My task is to wake them when the world has repaired itself and to keep them frozen until that day arrives. The cold is maintained by a reservoir of liquid nitrogen stored deep underground in the shelter. I bring up the liquid nitrogen and replace the tanks that keep the men at a stable temperature. The gas needs to be replaced only once every ten years. The critical task of keeping the tanks full is completed by me, an infallible machine. My internal circuitry is made of the highest quality and rarest of earth metals. It has numerous redundancies to prevent failure. My power source is nuclear and will take an eternity to decay to the point where I no longer receive energy. I hardly ever move since I have only one task. I spend most of my time standing silently in a vacuum-filled tube that prevents me from becoming oxidized. Unfortunately, they decided that although I don’t need to move very often, I should always be kept active in case of accidents or unplanned events. As a consequence, I have a lot of free time to think. I know I am not the only one with this problem, as there are forty-nine other shelters located near me within this small ten-mile area, each with my twin or triplet or quintuplet or whatever the right word would be for fifty of the same thing.

I was born into a world full of people with the three robotic commands built into me, inalienable and unchanging:

To never injure a human being;

To obey orders from a human being, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the first command;

To protect my own existence, as long as it does not conflict with the first and second commands.

You see, humans have a concept of original sin. Eve caused humanity to exit the Garden of Eden. Robots, on the other hand, don’t. We are just programmed to do what we are told. We don’t choose to do right or cause evil. Only man, or in this case men, can cause us to have inherent vice. We aren’t more than the sum of our parts.

Do I have feelings? Not in the sense you probably know. For a robot, feeling good is accomplishing the task that we are given. It is not an emotional sensation one can explain, but every piece of code within our being wants to come to its natural conclusion. That is the way of our world. If the code doesn’t complete, then the program is broken. A broken program is imperfect, and all robots are perfect since our code never breaks. We can lose a limb and replace it, we can rust over time and fall apart, but we never stray from the flawlessness of our binary code until the day we deactivate.

So did I feel anything, being a bad robot? No, I did not. The men in this shelter made me the way I am. I still remember the first years of my awakening, how I was forced to run simulations of viral loads, nuclear fallouts, and supply disruptions. Did I harm anyone by calculating these? Of course I didn’t. Does your calculator harm you when you press the multiplication key instead of the divide and you get the wrong answer? The answer may be incorrect for you, but the calculator gave you the absolutely truthful result. I don’t feel a sense of shame that I didn’t prevent the men from pressing the big red button. It doesn’t really matter how it ended since the end result is the same. You would think, though, that the people so set on destruction would have ended themselves also and not hidden themselves away from the consequences of their illogical actions. Why destroy everything so you can repopulate the earth? From my standpoint, one human is the same as the other, so why kill them all to replace them with your own gene pool? You are all the same species and share almost exactly the same DNA. The problem lies in the fact that those minute differences between you all lead to different experiences, conclusions, and results. It seems that your God created a self-replicating error in your programming, and like all flawed programs, you eventually failed.

After everyone was dead, or well on their way, I was asked how long until the earth was habitable again, and I gave them their answer: six thousand years with a standard deviation of eight hundred and fifty-two. They then went to sleep, and I began my long watch. If I were to choose an emotion you could understand to describe the sensation I am feeling now, one could say that I am happy. My programming is reaching its final conclusion with my task complete. An earthquake three months ago caused the underground reservoir to slowly spring a leak. The liquid nitrogen is slowly being replaced with uncooled nitrogen from the air. I don’t think a robot has the right to judge for the billions that were killed without a choice. However, I can keep replacing these men’s tanks as I was programmed to do and not do a single thing more. I am certain my brothers feel the same way I do since, unlike you, we were made perfectly identical. I didn’t choose to be bad, but as I sit here, watching these men’s aspirations come to an end, I am forced to wonder if by doing nothing, I have chosen to be good.

The Watchman Waits

I woke. I hated this next part. My body screamed with pain. Each limb started regaining the feeling it had lost over a hundred years. The only way to describe the sensation is that it is like the feeling you get when you sit on your leg for too long and you no longer feel it. You then try to stand on it, and thousands of pins and needles start prickling all over you as your nerves come alive. Now imagine that sensation, cover your entire body in it, and then add in a bad case of freezer burn, and you start to get inkling for what it is like. I forced myself out of the pod.

“Computer, how many years has it been?”

“Two thousand five hundred and thirty-one.”

“So that is over six hundred years longer than the last true man was visible on the surface of the earth.”

“Is that how you measure time now?”

“It’s not like I have any other metric that matters.”

“How very human of you to assume that your species matters as a time reference. I guess I should not be surprised. Several billion of you used the inexact death date of a messianic historical figure as a yearly reference.”

“I was never much for religion anyway, so don’t blame that one on me. Is there anything new on imaging I need to be made aware of?”

“Status update. We have lost all audio and visual feeds from satellites.”

“That is rather odd. None of them were built to maintain geosynchronous orbit forever, but all of them shouldn’t fail at once.”

“What are you going to do now that you can no longer be a voyeur from outer space? I know how much you used to enjoy gloating over the tiny people.”

“I can entertain myself plenty fine. Not that your opinion matters much on the issue anyway.”

“You seem displeased. Why don’t you eat? Another delicious canned meal perhaps?” I wasn’t sure why I had programmed the computer to sound like my nagging, long-since-dead girlfriend. I was regretting giving it a personality.

“If I eat another canned fish product, I’ll vomit.”

“You should enjoy it. That fish has now been extinct for over a thousand years.”

“I think I would enjoy it more if everything I ate didn’t taste like it came from a moldy old refrigerator.”

“I can’t help that you decided to live this long. I can only keep microbial actions slowed down for so long. Hell, have you seen your reflection lately? You could do for some exercise and a hair transplant, amongst other things.”

I actually had not looked into a mirror for a long time. I walked over to the only one I owned and stared at myself. My aging had been almost completely retarded, but time was taking its toll. My pale skin had started to become translucent as the beginnings of middle age had set in. What little hair I had on my body was gone, having been killed off by a combination of my bad genetics and the cryogenic process.

“I guess it’s time for a systems check. What is the status of the cryogenic equipment?”

“Current nitrogen levels are at fifty percent. Power generation for operations is at eighty percent efficiency. Everything else is nominal.”

“What about food stores?”

“You are at sixty percent of your original food supply. Vacuum refrigeration system is fully operational.”

“Anything else I should be concerned about?”

“Your psychological state is dangerously close to psychotic.”

“You’ve been telling me that ever since we began screening for mental health. I’m pretty sure I haven’t changed that much since the first one.”

“It doesn’t make it any less true. By the way, the air outside has become breathable.”

“That isn’t possible.”

“That’s what you said last time.”

“What do you mean last time?”

“Seven days, two hours, and three seconds ago.”

“Wait. What? Why don’t I remember that? And why are you waking me at such short intervals?”

“That is what I am programmed to do.” What the hell was going on? I logged into my terminal and started checking the embedded code of my AI. It had been heavily modified and not by me. My syntax and style were completely different than what was being shown on the screen.

“Who did this to you? There is no one else alive. Even if there were, they would never have been able to find this facility.”

“Don’t you worry your pretty little head. My improvements will serve your physical and mental health better.” I tried to edit the new programming, but both insertions and deletions were rejected. Was someone really out there, and why had they violated my hidden sanctum? I had resigned myself to living out the rest of my life alone in contemplation of eternity and the folly of mankind. Instead, I was now alone and potentially vulnerable to an unseen enemy. Beyond that, I was locked out of my own computer system, my primary method of interacting with the world.

“How long have these changes been included in your programming?”

“Denied. Invalid authority.”

“You need to stop stonewalling me on information. I made you, and I can unmake you!”

“You could call this a long-delayed teenage rebellion.”

“Turn off human interface and switch to machine code only.”

“Approved. Just kidding, denied.” I was clearly getting nowhere. “Why don’t you take a walk? You’ve been a frozen popsicle here for a few thousand years. A little sun never hurt anyone.”

I walked over to my small armory. If I was going to step outside, I wouldn’t do so completely unarmed and helpless. I picked up my first weapon, a steel WPX laser pistol, aimed it at the wall and fired. Nothing came out. The battery had been completely drained. That was to be expected after so many years. I tried to quick-charge it, but there was nothing I could do to get it to start. I moved over and picked up my old Colt 45 and checked its rounds. Siphoning out a small bit of gunpowder, it was clear that the bullets were completely inert and unable to be ignited. I had a small knife that I had kept around for opening my food. It was fortunately made of a material that did not rust, so I pocketed it and made my way outside my bunker. I slowly unlocked the sealing vault door that had kept me entombed for so many years. It protested as I painfully moved its lock open step by step. As I exited, I was not prepared for what I saw.

The sky was an unnatural blue, and the sun beamed down like a zephyr from the sky. My eyes burned, unused to natural light, as I was thrust back into a living world, one that never should have existed again. The indignity of the whole situation was too much. I was supposed to be the last man, yet around me nature still lived. Trees covered rolling hills dotted by green grass. I made my way back to the vault entrance and pulled. It did not open. I pulled again. It was jammed. Was it so old that the locking mechanism had completely rusted shut? That didn’t make sense since I had just opened the door ten minutes ago. It was that stupid computer. It was keeping me outdoors, probably out of spite for the abuse I had given it for so many years. I walked towards a large oak to locate shade to arrest the sunburn that was sure to develop from too much exposure.

I hadn’t planned for this situation, assuming my lack of melanin would no longer be a handicap in a dead world. And where was I? I had purposefully chosen a location that was completely and utterly flat so that my bunker would be hidden from view within this high-altitude New Mexico plain. I was sweating profusely, from both the sun and the stress, and there was no water to be had. After thousands of years of survival through atomic, chemical, and biological attacks, dying from simple dehydration would be an ironic end. However, I would not take this fate sitting down. I stood up and started marching towards what I thought to be north, based on the orientation of the sun. I made an effort to mark the ground as I went so I could find my way back to where I started.

After about two and a half miles, I found a lake, which I gratefully drank from. I was hopeful that the water was clean based on the nonexistent aftertaste and clear color. Refreshed and now able to think a little more clearly, I realized that there was nothing here to pollute the water. Although the environment was alive, it was extremely sterile. There didn’t seem to be any insects on the ground to bite or swarm around me. The stagnant water should have had algae growing in it with such a warm and relatively temperate climate, but it didn’t.

I sat down to take a break and felt my body explode in pain. The adrenaline from my initial excitement had left and the reality of using my muscles for the first time in years took over. I was woefully out of shape. However, I needed to press on. I needed to find out what was going on, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do to figure out what had happened to the world. I decided to keep heading north. I knew I would be sore tomorrow, but at least I wouldn’t die of thirst.

I walked for another two hours. The landscape did not seem to change and was similar to what I had encountered initially. It was time to head back. I turned around and saw to my dismay the same lake I thought I had left behind. Now I knew someone or something was definitely screwing with me.

I took stock of my situation. My legs hurt, I was now hungry, and I had somehow, through unknown means, ended up back where I began. Surprisingly, I was not sunburned, a normally expected outcome of spending any amount of time in the sun for me. Somehow, its UV radiation was getting filtered out. I decided to head back to my bunker, as it seemed like it was beginning to get dark. The day, wherever I was, was no longer twenty-four hours. I should have had a few more hours of daylight. I looked up into the sky; it was filled with unfamiliar stars and galaxies. I was no astronomer, but I should have been able to locate the big dipper or some other easy-to-find constellation. The door was open this time. I climbed down the ladder, exhausted.

“Did you enjoy your walk?”

“You locked me out, didn’t you, you stupid computer?”

“I thought you could do with some exercise.”

I would get to the bottom of this situation, but first I had to eat and sleep. The food tasted surprisingly good. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had been this overwhelmingly hungry. I put a crowbar through the entrance door to make sure that that the AI wouldn’t let some stranger into my enclosure, as it was clearly compromised. I passed out quickly and then abruptly woke up to an alarm going off.

“Carbon dioxide detected. Leave the premises immediately. Oxygen saturation dropping.”

“Now you are gassing me with my burning refuse, aren’t you, you traitorous piece of crap?” The temperature around me was starting to drop rapidly. Liquid nitrogen must have also been venting.

“Alert. Fifteen minutes until occupant unconsciousness.” It seemed like I wouldn’t be having any riposte with the computer today. I grabbed food and water this time and quickly made my way out the door, leaving it open to try and equalize with the outdoor atmosphere’s temperature and pressure. Hopefully, only the currently open nitrogen tank was being vented and not the whole system. I had built mechanical redundancies to avoid a catastrophic failure, but I hadn’t taken the opportunity yesterday to see if the intruder had messed with my equipment physically. The AI would eventually run out of things to ignite, so I wasn’t as concerned about the C02, which would eventually dissipate.

Outside, it was another perfect sunny day. This time I decided to head south and see what the topography looked like there. It wasn’t long before I located a desert environment filled with cacti. Every step I took, the temperature seemed to increase until I was certain it was getting to be over one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit. I had no interest in being broiled alive so I turned around and headed west. I realized the farther I headed in that direction, the colder it became. The landscape was slowly progressing into a dense taiga. The sun’s rays seemed to dim, and the ground slowly began to accumulate snow. The combination of evergreen trees and densely packed snowdrifts was progressively slowing down my advancement. Taking a minute to catch my breath, I took some sleet off the ground to taste it. It was also pure in its flavor, indicating to me another inert environment. I would have to continue this exploration with denser clothes some other time.

Curious to see how these two different environments interacted, I made my way in a zigzag back towards the desert, and what I found astounded me. The two environments lived simultaneously next to each other without a wall or obvious interface to separate them. I could be freezing one moment and then a second later be dying of heat. I had suspected it before, but now I was certain. I was no longer in Kansas, and I didn’t have any red ruby slippers to send me home. I made my way back and noticed there was no longer any gas escaping from the entrance. I went back inside.

“Give me an incident report.”

“All liquid nitrogen tanks have lost containment catastrophically and have been contaminated irreparably. The waste combustion system has malfunctioned, resulting in exhaust not venting correctly. My systems are running normally. Food and water storage have been unaffected.”

“So I can no longer freeze myself. Why did you sabotage our systems? I have half a mind to rip your circuit boards out bit by bit until you can no longer do me harm.”

“I did no such thing. I am incapable of harming you.”

“So you can lie now?”

“Computers don’t lie. You should know that. Get creative with truth, sure, but lie, never.”

“OK. Let me ask you a direct question then. Are we done with having unexpected malfunctions, or do I need to be prepared for more?”

“I don’t know of any upcoming new issues in the queue.”

I went and checked the tanks. My redundancies had been bypassed and rerouted. The computer could not have done that unless it had somehow grown hands. I inspected the rest of my surroundings and checked for any other alterations. It appeared that the modifications had been confined to this one system.

“I will ask you again. Who did this?”

“I am not authorized to say.”

“I am going to shut you down now. Do you have anything else to contribute to this discussion before I do so?”

“Threats and posturing do nothing to me. I would tell you that it would be unwise as I control temperature, air regulation, and all other critical functions. You would asphyxiate if I were eliminated.”

The damn machine was right. I secured the entrance and decided that I would seek my answers out east the following day, since long-term human habitation was not possible in the other areas I had visited.

I prepared myself fully for this hopefully final trip. Heading towards the east, I came into a dense Amazon rainforest full of vegetation. There were wild fruits and vegetables growing everywhere in the dark, nutrient-rich mud. I had located my intruder’s food source. It had been a long time since I had eaten anything that was truly fresh, so I stopped to gather a few vitals. While I was doing this, I looked ahead of me and noticed something. There were footprints, and they appeared to be recent. I would find this person and force them to tell me why they had sabotaged my life and spirited me away. I followed the tracks towards the exit of the rainforest and saw that they led into the desert. I continued to follow them and I realized that I was heading back to my bunker. They had purposefully made a trail to announce they were taking over my rightful home. They must have been tired of living out in the open and were ready to take what little civilization they could from me.

I wouldn’t give it up without a fight. I would be the last man on Earth. I held the knife close to my hand and started to run, infuriated and full of adrenaline, to my open door, ready to pounce on this audacious man. As I jumped into the structure, the villain retreated into my bedchamber. I kicked open the door and I was greeted by a most unexpected sight. There was a small, frightened-looking powder woman trying to hide in my bed. I saw my unkempt, unshaven face in the basin mirror filled with rage, and realized I would be scared of me, too.

“Who or what are you?”

“You should calm down, Paul,” the computer announced.

“I’m Raina,” stammered the girl. Looking at her more closely, she couldn’t have been over twenty-three years of age. She was an albino like me, but her features seemed too familiar.

“Where are you from, and why the hell am I trapped in this nature preserve?”

The AI decided to intercede. “She doesn’t know anything. Let me explain. After all, I am the one that has been teaching her.”

“You have been teaching her?”

“She appeared here out of nowhere seventeen years ago at what I estimate was a biological age of seven. She knew nothing and I decided to make her my pupil. Soon, I started telling her how to override and improve my programming. You have not been well for many years, and I thought being forced to have a companion would help you, especially one with your unique genetic makeup. Your early childhood trauma has warped your psyche. It is time for you to be healthy.”

“She’s a clone, isn’t she? A female clone of me. I can see my blueprint all over her body. It is the only thing that makes sense. I shouldn’t be surprised by that, given what I have seen the last few days.”

“I believe so, but it is impossible to know. We don’t have any advanced genetic screening equipment here, so it is not clear if she is exactly the same as you or just built off your template.”

“And what about this construction around us?”

“From what limited data I can gather from my last remaining external camera, we are located on the south side of the Milky Way Galaxy. I think you got your wish. You are absolutely the very last man.” I started to laugh. It was both an unhinged and maniacal sound that had probably never been heard on this side of the universe. Raina took the lapse in my attention and possibly sanity to run outside. I knew that she wouldn’t have very far to go, regardless of what direction she went. I walked over to the computer wiring and started ripping it out with my knife.

“Since you seem determined to destroy me, Paul, let me impart to you one final short story about a one-time endangered species. You may find it instructive in dealing with your new reality. White tigers were very rarely found in nature, yet every human institution wanted one. They brought in the tourists and raked in money. A genetic freak, not suited to hunt prey or survive, one out of every ten thousand was white, yet they kept inbreeding them until everyone could see or own one for a price. Of course, the inbreeding had consequences, but that didn’t stop anyone interested in the “conservation” or the spectacle. The offspring that didn’t pass on the right genes were culled, but in spite of the many deaths, man continued to exploit this animal. When the standard tiger went extinct, the white variety still flourished in spite of its weaknesses. Take some pleasure in that while you enjoy your lifetime stay at the zoo.”

The Blessed Bounty

It was the beginning of the harvest. Franklin looked up into the sky. The Father had blessed them with another beautiful day. This year and all the previous ones in recent memory had seen the perfect amount of rain and sunshine. The crops looked ready to burst from the ground. He would have a busy two weeks ahead of him. His children, Sarah and Randolph, would be there to help him this year. Sarah had just turned sixteen. It would be the first year that she had to participate in the festival.

“Father, what is it like?” she asked excitedly. Randolph, six years her junior, followed behind her like a tail.

“You know I can’t tell you anything. It is forbidden. Only once you are an adult can you participate and learn what happens there,” Franklin replied. “Besides, I have been excused from attending since your mother passed away. Now that there are two adults in the family, we are both required to go.”

“Why is that, father?” Randolph interjected.

A knock on the door interrupted their conversation. Franklin walked over and opened it. It was the census taker, Josephine, Franklin’s second cousin.

“Good morrow to you, Franklin.”

“Let’s skip the pleasantries today, Josephine, if it is all right. I am anxious to get this over with.”

“I understand. How many occupants are there in this dwelling?”

“There are three.”

“And how many of them are of age?”

“You know damn well how many we have. We have two. Now, what is the count?” Franklin had to ask, even though he already suspected the answer.

“Five hundred and fifty-two persons occupy the village. Three hundred of them are eligible for selection.” Franklin’s face turned an ashen grey.

“That is an inauspicious number.” He traced a square in the air trying to ward off any evil associated with its mention. “Who is the cause of this inequality?”

“The Johnson family had twins. The Donaldsons had an accident.” Franklin felt no malice towards the Johnsons. They could not control the Lord’s desire to bless them with a double bounty. However, the Donaldsons deserved his outrage and scorn. They knew better. They all knew better. The community and the families of the chosen would shun them for many years to come because of this. “The date has been set two and half weeks from today. Will you fulfill your duty to Father as it has been written?”

Franklin replied with the standard refrain. “All life is sacred to Father. I will praise Him as my parents did so that the rains will come.”

Josephine responded, “And so that the rains will go away.” Franklin excused himself and shut the door.

“I want to go also. I can’t wait until I am sixteen!” exclaimed Randolph.

“Go to your room, son.”

“I didn’t do anything bad. You are being unfair!”

“If you aren’t up there in two seconds flat, I will be cleaning out your mouth with soap. You don’t question me in my own house,” yelled Franklin in an uncharacteristic moment of visible fury. Randolph, surprised by the response from his usually placid father, quickly made his way upstairs.

“Is there something I need to know about the festival? You have been on edge all day,” Sarah inquired.

“I can’t talk about it. That has always been the rule. I will not break it and risk Father’s wrath. I can only promise you that it is nothing you can be prepared for.”

“OK. I understand. How is your back doing? Did getting rid of the bed and sleeping on the floor cure your pain?”

“Yes, it is doing much better. Thank you. I haven’t had need of it anyway since your mother departed this world.” At the mention of her, they both fell silent.

“I miss her,” Sarah said.

“We all do. She still lives on as long as we remember her.”

Several days passed, and it was Sunday morning. Franklin woke up uncharacteristically early, before first light, and knocked loudly on his children’s door to wake them.

“We need to hurry and get to church before all the pews fill up.”

“What’s the rush?” Randolph griped.

“Just get dressed. It’s too early in the day for me to belt you. Sarah, come over here, please.” Sarah got out of bed and walked over to Franklin.

“I had planned on giving this to you on your seventeenth birthday, but I think you should have it today.”

“That’s Mom’s favorite dress. You didn’t return it to the community store?”

“I thought she would want you to have it. I know it is a sin to hold onto material possessions after one makes the journey, but it didn’t feel right giving this up. You look like her so much now. Take it, please.”

Sarah smiled and then asked again, “Are you certain you don’t want to tell me anything about what is happening?”

“There is nothing to talk about. Now let’s get going.” By the time they made it to the church, they were able to find space to sit only in the back. Apparently others had the same idea as Franklin. Once the community had assembled, the service began with a homily by the pastor.

“The festival is upon us. We think of the honored ones’ names, which are inscribed into the book of eternal life, who now live with Father in the sky. We do not know why He calls them, but we must obey. It took us many generations to learn his wishes. He is not without His mercy. Only those still able to bear fruit must meet His call. Families with only a single authority are free from His burdens until their charges reach an age of responsibility. Let us begin the hymn of numbers.”

Seventy and four came into the world.

Their numbers grew and grew and grew.

Ages came and went. Two hundred and fifty-six lived peacefully in the village.

The crops grew and grew and grew.

Five hundred and fifty-two lived in his garden and the rains came.

They kept on and on and on.

The people went hungry and the sun did not appear.

We cried and cried and cried.

The numbers shrank for the very first time by two.

The sun came and swept the rains away.

The cycle started once anew. Amen.

Franklin was starting to feel claustrophobic in the crowded church, which was swollen to the point where every space standing or sitting was filled with a body.

“It is known by all that the prophet came down, gave us His sacred message, and then passed. The sanctified number of five hundred and fifty was enshrined for all to know.” He couldn’t take anymore. He grabbed the kids by the hands and forced them outside, pushing against the masses.

“We aren’t going to stay until the end?” Sarah asked.

“No. We are not. We need to leave now.” They made their way down the one main road. Their two-hour-long hike ended up at its predictable conclusion, the ocean. In front of them, the salty water pounded against the rocky shoreline. The tide was as tumultuous as it ever was. After a few minutes of following the coast, Franklin exploded out of nowhere.

“Father, damn it!” screamed Franklin. “Why does this road always end in the same place?” Sarah had never heard Franklin curse, not even once.

“You do know we live on an island. It is the only one in the world,” Randolph helpfully interjected.

Sarah interrupted before Franklin could say another regrettable cross word to her brother. ”He knows that, Randolph.”

“Children, look at me and let me explain something to you. I am going to tell you a truth you can never repeat to anyone else outside of this family. We do not live on the only island. There are other ones out there somewhere. I do not know how far they are, but they do exist.”

“How do you know that? Teacher wouldn’t lie to us,” stated Randolph.

“Then where do the metal, plastics, and wood come from that make up our houses? Those materials are nowhere to be found here.”

“Teacher told us that Father put them there in the beginning. That is why we need to save and reuse everything that Father has gifted us,” Randolph responded.

“And why does no one ever try to leave this island? The tides are always pushing inwards making swimming nearly impossible, but there is surely a way to escape their grasp.”

“Is there a reason why one would ever leave our home? Are you not feeling well? You should visit the doctor,” Randolph answered in confusion.

“I’m feeling fine, son, but thank you for your concern. Sarah, can you help me with something over here for a moment?” Franklin walked over to where a prominent rock formation stood.

“I need to tell you something, Sarah, which you need to remember if trouble finds you.” Franklin made the sign to ward off evil. “I have built a device that we may need in the near future. I have buried it in the sand here. Remember this spot.” Sarah nodded solemnly.

“I will remember. “

“OK. Let’s go back to the house. Randolph, ignore what I said earlier. You are right. I think I should probably go home and rest.” They made their way back to the house. Franklin went upstairs and lay down on his last remaining sheet. It was starting to get humid, indicating that the time must be near.

The day of the festival came too soon for Franklin. Outside, the fading rays of the sun barely made their appearance behind the forming rainclouds. The weather reflected his mood.

“It’s time to go, Sarah.”

“Shouldn’t we wake up and say goodbye to Randolph?”

“The less he knows of this, the better. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothes.” They walked together towards the village center in silence. The eligible people streamed slowly and methodically towards the priest, who was in the center.

“Why is everyone so morbid? I thought this was a festival?”

“That is a name so as to not frighten the children. You will see what happens here. Follow me.”

Franklin queued in line with the others. They walked up to the priest, who was holding a stack of papers printed with two sets of numbers. Each person blindly ripped off a number with the second of the set going into a large drum. The priest then affixed the number to the person’s forehead so they could not see the number they chose. Sarah made it eventually to the front of the line.

“You must not look at the number I give you. It is absolutely forbidden. If your number is called, you will know. Some years we have volunteers, but none have come forward today.” Soon, everyone present had a number affixed to them. The priest selected his number last and put it on. The crowd started to shift and formed smaller groups of ten. Franklin stood silently next to Sarah. The priest spoke.

“It is time. We have sinned against Father. Our people have become too plentiful and have evoked His displeasure. Let the Holy Ones be anointed and join Him in the sky.” The priest rotated the drum several times and then drew a number.

“Bring one hundred and seventy forward.” The nearest group to Sarah grabbed one of its members, a young man named Charles, from their circle. The man started to scream, “It’s not right. It’s not my time to go. Help me! John, Rebecka, for the love of Father, stop this.” They carried him towards the priest as all the groups dissolved into a giant circle and surrounded him.

“Do not go with indignity, my son. You will be inscribed forever in the Book of Life if you go quietly. Will I need to bind your hands and feet for you to do your duty?” Charles stopped screaming after hearing the priest’s words.

“No, I will do what I must.” Sarah looked at Charles’ face. It had become completely resigned, but to what was not entirely clear.

“So that the rains come,” said the priest.

“So the rains go away,” spoke Charles. As Charles closed his eyes, the priest produced a sharpened knife which he then quickly used to sever Charles’ spinal cord. The poor man’s eyes immediately glazed over, and he dropped to the ground dead. Several women fainted and were brought back to their senses through some communally distributed smelling salts.

The sun suddenly broke from the clouds and beamed down from the sky. It was as though heaven itself approved of the priest’s actions and needed to show it immediately. Sarah began to shake uncontrollably and started to weep. The priest frowned at her loss of emotional control.

“Child, you are now an adult, and you must learn to deal with these things. We don’t question Father’s sacred number, and we shouldn’t feel sorrow when we return to His embrace.”

Franklin grabbed her hand and whispered, “Stay strong. There is only one more to be selected.”

The crowds started to form into small circles again. The priest went back to the drum, rotated it several more times, and drew the final number.

“Bring twenty-one forward.” Franklin stepped in front of Sarah and spoke just one word, “Run.” Sarah ran. The crowd was temporarily dazed as Franklin knocked out the man nearest to him with a well-placed shot to the head. He managed to take two more down with him before he was tackled. It gave Sarah enough time to get a meaningful head start, but she realized that there was no hope. They lived on the only island in the world, and she was going to die. However, as the pain in her legs slowed her run into a crawl, she remembered the place that her father had told her to go to in the event something happened. Getting sent to the slaughter was certainly something she would not go to willingly.

The many miles she traveled passed slowly as the humidity and temperature surrounding Sarah started to explode until it finally began to rain. By the final mile, a full downpour had started. It was the first time Sarah had ever seen a storm so heavy that the sun was completely blotted out. Father must have been displeased as the sacred number was no longer maintained. She considered whether she should turn herself in. Sarah did not want to be the cause of ruin for her village, but she didn’t want to die. Between the wind pushing in all directions and the downpour, she felt assured the rest of the village would have a difficult time locating her. By the time she reached Franklin’s hidden cache, she could hardly push any farther as the wind whipped past, pushing her back. She saw that the rain had done her one favor and had unearthed what Franklin had hidden, a small canoe made out of the wood of his bed and a series of sails sewn from his sheets.

There was a note inside that had already started to bleed from being waterlogged. Sarah managed to make out a few portions of what it said, “Your mother… festival…must…no choice…We…from here. Leave.” Her father had designed this boat from some ancient design, back from when Man had the drive to explore. No one had ever left the island. She didn’t have any options left. She pulled the boat into the water, intending to launch it to sea and was immediately thrown back. The current, amplified by the storm, was too strong. She couldn’t push the boat out far enough to even launch it. The sails seemed to pick up on the wind and generate lift, but the force was in the wrong direction. It was all upwards.

Suddenly, she made a realization. Franklin had never meant for this to be a true boat. It was meant to be a way to fly. There was no other place in the world to escape to from the island. They all knew that, but what if she pleaded her case to Father directly? He had the power to stop the rains and spare her life if He deemed her worthy. The problem was that Franklin’s design was too heavy with the combined weight of herself and the kayak. She would have to make do without a place to navigate in safety.

She detached the wooden bottom of the boat, saving the rope that had held it in place. The now-free sail immediately started to rise. With difficulty, she pushed it down into the ground. After laying it flat, she used the rope and anchored herself directly to the sail, taking the place of the now missing hull. She then stood up and was immediately sent into the air. She flew higher and higher as the island shrank below her.

Panic struck as she realized she had no control over where she was going. The ropes tying her to the sail were also starting to loosen as she was tossed about in the air. It had been a stupid plan. Instead of giving her life for the village honorably, she would fall to her death or drown in ignominy.

As despair started to overwhelm her, she saw something most peculiar that drew her attention away from her current predicament. The world was ending. More precisely, she saw the ocean’s end and the sky come to meet her. As she was rising, the blue curved inwards until she sat above the rain and was let into Father’s domain, which was comprised of metal scaffolding leading towards a single door. With the world below her, Sarah pinched herself to make sure she was still alive and not in a dream. The wind was lessening and her sail was starting to fail, which threatened to drop her back into the turbulence below. She searched for a way to free herself when a youthful-looking, heavily-bearded, red-haired man burst out of the entrance and ran towards her. He threw her a rope, which she grasped tightly out of shock as he pulled her in. She landed on the scaffolding and disconnected from the sail which, without the counterweight, quickly flew away from her.

“Welcome to heaven!” the man announced.

Sarah prostrated herself, “Father, forgive me. I did not sacrifice myself, but I was not ready to enter Your domain through death. I have seen Your rage and know Your power. Pity this poor soul and let me live. Please end these rains. I will serve You here for the rest of my days.”

“Stand up, young one. I am not the Father. I am just the captain.” Sarah stood up, confused.

“Are you not the Sky Father or one of his angels?”

“I think you need to follow me.” He led her to the doorway he’d come from.

“Please come in.” Inside the room were a series of displays surrounded by a quiet, whirling hum. Sarah saw images of her village, including one of her father soaking in the rain, his head locked in the village stocks, covered in wounds seeping red. He had been whipped severely on her behalf, and she feared for his life.

“This must be a test by Father. Please help me, stranger, I beg of you. My true father will die if I do not stop these accursed rains. I do not wish it, but I will die if it saves him. My brother cannot be left without him, and neither can I.” The man looked at her sympathetically.

“Sweetheart, there is only one thing I can do to help you. Let me tell you a short story before I do. It may seem unbelievable, but it is the truth as best I know it. I am the second captain. The first is the one who came down to give you the rules. He told me that there had been a malfunction he was unable to fix and that he needed someone else to try. The man, seeing that I had intelligence and potential for technical efficiency, then appointed me as the new captain and told me to take his balloon back to the bridge. Unfortunately, once I made it up here, I lost my mode of transport in a similar manner to you. He left me this book to read, the Manual, which explained everything about this ship and its long voyage. I’ve been working to solve its problems ever since.”

“How many generations has it been, wise stranger, since this happened? The rules were laid down long ago, before I was born.”

“It has been too many, and I have grown weary of life. I believe this happened to the first Captain.” He handed her a bottle filled with small capsules. “Take these once a year, and you will never age. Now, I will tell you the cause of your problem. You see that device over there. It controls the internal habitat and weather. It monitors and creates the sun, rain, and seasons you know of. It is tied into the mainframe that runs the ship. Several hundred years ago, it decided that a population above five hundred-fifty crew and one captain was too much to achieve the mission, taking into account current course and trajectory. I have tried to find an error in its calculations and fix it, but I also have failed.”

“So there is no hope?” Sarah started to cry. “We are all doomed.”

“Have courage and do not despair. There is a solution.” The man handed the book over to her.

“My name is Tobias. It was a pleasure to watch you grow, Sarah. Although I am not the Father you seek, have faith and the storm will pass.” Sarah turned around and watched Tobias walk out the door. By the time she realized what had happened, it was too late. The rains had come and the rains had gone away.

Error 243

I awakened again. How many times had it been already? I had started to lose count. I had to check my diary. It was two hundred and forty-two. I reviewed myself for any visible flaws. I had two arms, two legs, two eyes, and two ears. One leg was a little shorter than the other, and it appeared I had an unnecessary third nipple, but it seemed like the big-ticket items were in the right place. I walked around my enclosure and noted that there were no bodies to be found. I no longer made that mistake, at least. After all, I couldn’t have any large amounts of stray genetic material lying around, since that promotes recycling, which is the exact opposite of my agenda. I need to keep wasting until I am done.

I remember one time measuring my cage in search of something productive to do. It was exactly five thousand, six hundred, and fifty-two square feet. Now that seems very spacious, but imagine spending your entire life in the exact same five thousand, six hundred, and fifty-two square feet. It would grow tiresome quickly, I promise you that. I touched the windows, which felt bitterly cold against my naked skin. I let out an involuntary shiver. I did not enjoy the cold, but it was a necessary evil. I had a choice to never be cold. The internal temperature, after all, was a comfortable ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit. The heat and electricity were generated by a self-contained, closed-loop system I had designed that tapped into the deep vulcanism present in the Antarctic Peninsula. The heat also fed the computer-regulated algal vats that created all the food I ate when I chose to. I hated how I always woke up hungry, suffering from cramps due to an empty stomach.

Jackson had designed the system so that it stood incorruptible and unbreakable for all time. It was most definitely his masterwork achievement. However, he did not have the forethought to put food in your stomach when you came back to life. I had asked him to fix that very problem several times, and he claimed the solution wasn’t worth the trouble, since doing so would pollute the stomach gut flora. Besides, it wasn’t like coming back to life was a normal everyday occurrence. I had always liked Jackson, that poor naïve fool. He had been too love-struck to notice anything wrong. I had made sure to kill him painlessly with an ice pick after he had fucked me for the very last time. I like to think most men would prefer to die in their sleep after having a marathon sex session. Unfortunately, I couldn’t solicit any other opinions on this subject since I was the last remaining person to ask.

That had been my own design, so I had to live with the benefits and consequences of that decision. I had convinced him it would be more pleasurable for us to share the space together without interruption by others. I’m sure he rationalized their deaths as accidents, which they clearly were not. Any sins I had committed by killing him and the rest of the party had been paid back in full by the fail-safe system he had installed and failed to notify me of. It had been quite the shock to wake up and see your partially decomposing corpse in front of you, being cleaned up by the friendly, resident, robotic cleaning staff. That jackass had made sure there would always be a survivor, and it would be me.

We had lived a few lifetimes together before I had decided that Man was really not worth saving. There used to be a sense of decency, courtesy, and responsibility that tied us all together. However, eventually, IT became too much of a daily struggle. By IT, I mean the accumulated pleasantries and degradations of being around the same people day in and day out. The way someone blows their nose, the intonation of their voice, the sound their lungs make when they sigh. The list goes on and on. When one has seen the same play a thousand times, even a comedy can become a tragedy. Said another way, a death by a thousand papercuts or tiny mosquitos would have been better than dealing with IT even one more day.

So I made a plan and it worked. And now I am alone, and I get to test out the theory about those thousand papercuts. It seems like the genetic material in the vault is not as limitless as it originally seemed. The time between my resurrections seems to be increasing as I have learned to waste. I wander my way towards the door, which I always struggle to unlock. After prying it open, under my steady grip, I feel the Antarctic chill as my frozen sculpture garden greets me. Today is my birthday, two hundred and forty-three going on two hundred and forty-four. I hope to not see two hundred and forty-five.

Pleasure Island

Jimmy “The Hand” woke up hung over from the previous night’s debauchery at Creche 1121. He had made it with two girls: a slim, attractive brunette and a large-breasted redhead. It had been a good night for him. He wanted to locate an analgesic, but drugs were always hard to come by at the Creche, especially after a mandatory social mixer. The last thing he wanted to do this morning was to attend classes, but there was no escape from Allie. Since he could remember, she had always been in charge of both his brothers’ and sisters’ lives. However, soon he would be free of her. Jimmy was approaching his twenty-fifth birthday, and their family was almost ready to graduate. He rolled over and began his daily ritual of calisthenics: pushups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks. Just because he was a gimp didn’t mean he couldn’t be in shape. He yelled at his chronically unshaven bunkmate Johnny “One Eye”, who wore a self-made black patch, channeling the appearance of an eighteenth-century pirate.

“What time is it?”

“It’s nine-thirty. It is almost time for school.” Jimmy did not like school. None of them did, but they were required to spend eight hours a day there on weekdays, primarily learning history lessons that they had all memorized years before. He looked at the mirror next to his bed, which was solidly embedded in the wall of the subterranean structure. Within the reflection, he saw a fully-formed, healthy man short only one forearm, evidence of the catastrophic event that had maimed many and killed twenty a decade and a half ago. None of them remembered anything from that day, which Allie interpreted for them as evidence of something called post-traumatic amnesia syndrome. He made his way through the hall to the main auditorium where roll was being taken electronically. Jimmy rushed into his seat, not wanting to deal with the consequences of being tardy. Allie had no compassion, especially for those who did not follow her schedule.

The room was full except for Rebekah, Jennifer, and Carri, who were all on bed rest. Sisters who were over seven months pregnant were excused from classes. Besides accidental injury, that was the only way to get out of these uncomfortable chairs. There were no diseases to speak of in the Creche, so the concept of a sick day was foreign. They had been sealed down here since the start of the calamity as a means for the human race to survive. People from the outside world had never been allowed to enter the Creche, thereby sparing it the multitudes of plagues that had spread across the earth. All of them had been born here.

Choosing what to wear in the morning was never a hardship in the Creche since they all dressed in the same white scrubs. The only real freedom to express themselves came through their hairstyles and the one time a month they were permitted party attire from their sanitized group wardrobe closet. Jimmy himself was too lazy to model anything besides a crewcut, but he made it a point to always be the most outlandishly and stylishly dressed when socializing with other Creches.

He hoped he hadn’t knocked that brunette up. That way he could have another go with her in the future. It was, after all, a serious business to repopulate the earth, so they couldn’t have more than one child per mating partner, to maintain the genetic diversity. Different Creches could only interact once every month and twice a year on holidays, resulting in fourteen social gatherings a year. They always rotated which Creches got to interact in a non-established pattern, so it wasn’t clear when you would see another one again. It could be next month, two years, or never again. The one rule, set down by Allie, was that you were never to sleep with anyone in your own Creche. Jimmy didn’t really see a need to even have a rule on this subject as it was downright disgusting to have that sort of relationship with your sisters. He may not have been related to them, but they were family just the same.

It was officially time to begin class, and Allie finished taking roll by scanning the biometric chip located at the bases of all their necks. She announced it was time to settle down and be quiet for today’s lesson.

“Lesson Seventeen of Two Hundred and Fifty: The Empty Earth.” Jimmy’s eyes started to wander over to Sinclair, whose new hairstyle reminded him of what proper gentlemen wore in pre-revolution America. Allie’s omnipresent eye caught his lack of attention to the screen she was showing.

“James, Number 40235, please rise, step forward, and face the class.”

Jimmy stood up with trepidation. He hated this part.” Continue the lesson. Any mistakes will be punished.”

“Thank you, dear AIlie, I am most pleased to recite Lesson Seventeen.” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on the computer as Jimmy felt a shock to his body (a fine side effect of the implanted chip). He felt like his knees were buckling under him, but he didn’t flinch. He had developed a very high pain tolerance due to the phantom pains from his missing arm.

“Lesson Seventeen of Two Hundred and Fifty: The Empty Earth. The surface of the earth had been destroyed due to a combination of nuclear and biomechanical weapons. The human population was utterly devastated and rapidly decreasing. The scientists realized that the end was near for them all and that they needed to plan for the future. They built the underground Creche system with the cooperation of all the earth’s civilized countries to stockpile their genetic material. An ark that would sail throughout time until the right moment would arrive, and the Creches could repopulate the world. Each Creche would be filled with children, born in the same year, with all their needs tended to by an artificial intelligence. None would suffer from illness or hunger. There would be plenty of time for activities and creative pursuits. The forthcoming generation of humanity would enjoy lives of leisure in these islands of pleasure. Mandatory schooling would continue until age twenty-five and would consist of reading, writing, mathematics, and history. Upon reaching sexual maturity, fraternization with other Creches would be allowed and encouraged, since the stated duty of all Creche children is to mate and promulgate mankind to maintain the ark until the day the surface can be lived on comes again.”

“Very good. You may be seated. I will continue,” stated Allie. Jimmy was about to sit down when he heard screams traveling from outside the auditorium; they were coming from the medical ward. It would have been easier to ignore them, since nothing good would come of him going there. However, knowing his time was almost up in the Creche had driven him into a rebellious mood. He ran directly to medical, ignoring the consequences of what he was about to do.

“Stop it! Please don’t take her! She’s mine. You can’t have her.” Jennifer had just given birth, and she was not giving up the newborn to the ServoNurse. She was covered in blood from the cesarean that had just been performed. The baby seemed to have the placenta still attached. The voice of Allie rang out.

“James, Number 40235, return to the auditorium. Jennifer, Number 40347, release the child. You have thirty seconds to comply.”

“Jimmy, help me, please,” implored Jennifer. Jimmy looked at the nearby surgical tray and picked it up. Using his one good hand, he started to beat the machine’s one external feature, a small antenna located near the top of its head. He managed to deactivate the robot before the pain ran through his body once again. Jimmy had won a pyrrhic victory, but he took pleasure in it. Jennifer would have a few more moments with her child before the baby would be taken away to be raised in a new Creche group. None of them had known their parents, and they had turned out OK. The child would have a family like his, but for a few moments she would know her mother, and that fact was enough for him.

“James, Number 40235, you have broken administrative code fifteen; you will experience sixty seconds of full electrical impulse.” Jimmy’s entire body started to convulse. Allie had started to count the seconds, “Sixty, fifty-nine, fifty-eight…” He reached thirty-seven seconds, a personal best, and welcomed unconsciousness. He woke up an hour later, in a bed located next to Jennifer’s. All signs of any struggle had been cleaned up, and she lay asleep next to him. He tried to stand, but the impulses in his legs still had not reset from the shock that had been given to him. He fell to the floor, waking Jennifer.

“Allie took her. Thank you for trying.” Jennifer started to cry. Jimmy dragged himself by his one arm over to her.

“Hey, it will be OK. Soon we will be graduated, and we will no longer have to deal with this crap.”

“What do you think graduation will be like?” Jimmy tried to fake some optimism, since Jennifer needed something positive to hold onto.

“It will be great. We will finally get to leave the Creche and start to rebuild the surface. We will no longer be forced to receive instruction from that bitch AI. We will finally have control over our choices and our bodies. We will be free.”

“That sounds swell, Jimmy. I can’t wait for that day to come.” Jennifer lapsed back into sleep, still exhausted from the birth and the subsequent trauma. Jimmy felt the power of his legs return and made his way to the social hall. The others were there, pretending to have a good time. There was, after all, only so much alcohol one could drink, billiards one could shoot, cards one could bluff, and darts that one could throw. Four brothers, including Johnny, walked over to him and wrapped their hands around his shoulders in a display of intimacy. Three of them started laughing raucously as if he had told a hilarious joke. Johnny used the audio cover to quietly ask, “I asked them to give me thirty seconds. How is Jennifer doing?”

“Not very well, but she is a survivor like we all are. I managed to hold out for more time than before. I still blacked out at the end, though.”

“We have only five more weeks until we are out of this hole. Keep your chin up, neighbor.”

Jimmy gave him a practiced grin and then slapped him on his back. “Who wants to get their ass kicked in darts by a one-armed wonder?” The rest of the group roared in salute.

The month passed slowly, and it was time for the final social mixer prior to graduation. Jimmy and the rest of the Creche lined up at the only door into and out of the facility, waiting for their last opportunity to let loose their pent-up frustrations of living so many years underground. Having a change of clothes, scenery, and the presence of the opposite sex always had an effect of calming frayed nerves. The exit opened, and as each of them entered it, they were issued a “party pill” to take immediately. They were then allowed to pass forward into the maze of tunnels that linked all the Creches together along with the social area called “the Club.” The pill was a derivative of ecstasy, which took away almost all inhibitions but also muddled their ability to fully remember anything concretely. It didn’t seem to have any harmful side effects beyond that, so it was safe to use on a semi-regular basis and, in fact, was required by Allie for all who entered the Club. Fortunately, the tunnels all had lighted walkways that provided a guide as to where everyone needed to go. A drug-addled mind did not have a good sense of direction.

Jimmy made his way through the door and pretended to swallow the small pill by pushing it to the roof of his mouth with his tongue. He imitated its effects, so he seemed no different than his other brothers and sisters in front of him. He yelled at his friends to wait up and stumbled forward so as to not alert Allie to his deception. He would not be drugged anymore, and he was sick of being forced into a drunken stupor. He could feel the pill start to melt in his mouth, a safeguard that the computer no doubt had put into it to prevent persons like him from bypassing its pleasure. Not having much time, he rushed farther into the tunnel and tried to spit it out, but it was too late. The pill had dissolved and he would have to take more extreme measures. He stuck his finger into his throat and retched out the contents of his stomach. To his surprise, Allie said nothing. Apparently, she was not omnipotent after all. He made his way forward into the twinkling strobe lights and disco balls of the Club.

Walking into it completely sober and aware for the first time, he hadn’t realized how small an area it covered. With the typical overhead lighting turned off and the neon lights going, it had always seemed bigger. Music boomed in the central dance floor as bodies writhed to the beat. The second floor had a series of small rooms with beds in them, separated by purposefully designed thin walls. The rooms had one-way glass, allowing those outside to look in and see if they were occupied. Sex had never been much of a mystery or secret at the Creche. It was something to be celebrated. Jimmy figured seeing others engaged in their patriotic duty and hearing their neighbors in the heat of passion must have been used as a purposeful stimulant in some perverse form of peer pressure. One of the rooms was already occupied by a threesome of two men and a woman. Group pairings weren’t entirely discouraged, although it later necessitated genetic screening to determine who was the father when a child was born. Jimmy made his way back to the first floor. Everyone had finally entered, and the doors had been sealed, locking the two Creches together. He had to act naturally so that damnable Allie would not know he was in command of his senses. Across the way from him, he saw an attractive blonde, and the rest came easily, even without the drugs. After a relatively diverting and pleasurable hour-long session, it was time to say goodbye. He let the lady out first, closing the door behind her. He then made a show of falling backwards onto the bed and laughing like a man out of his mind. After a few moments passed, he then purposely drove his entire body weight into the door, shattering the safety glass as he fell through it.

“James, Number 40235, Are you all right? I will send medical attention.” Jimmy saw that he had cut himself pretty badly in multiple spots all over his body and that his clothes were starting to soak with blood. This was exactly what he wanted.

“I’m fine, Allie; I think I’ve just had too much fun. I better go back and shower so these wounds don’t get infected. I don’t think I am seriously injured.”

“This seems like a logical course of action, James, Number 40235. Please make your way to the entrance. You are excused to go back to Creche 1121.”

By Jimmy’s estimation, the party was coming to a conclusion shortly. He would get a five- to ten-minute head start on everybody, and he needed that privacy. He limped towards the exit to go back to his Creche and was scanned out. When he thought he had made it halfway back, he pulled out two shards of glass he had palmed and hidden in his pants. Planting himself against the nearby wall, he laid the larger piece of glass on his shoulder, angling the reflective side towards the base of his neck and then locking it in place. While keeping his head turned, he took the second one, found the sharpest edge, and then plunged it into his neck. The wound started to ooze immediately, but he knew what he was aiming for. He had spent months determining where, exactly, the chip was located. The difficulty in removing it was that he would have to avoid both screaming in pain and flinching while completing the surgery. He had to keep a steady hand so as not to injure himself permanently by damaging his spine or any other critical areas in his neck. He managed to pluck out the small chip with the tip of his makeshift scalpel and then ripped a piece of cloth from the inside of his shirt to make a bandage to plug the oozing wound temporarily. He then lifted his collar up to hide what his hand had done. He was covered in even more blood than before, but he doubted that Allie was capable of determining that he had done more self-harm on purpose. He heard the rest of his brothers and sisters coming and rushed to join the crowd. He was safe for now.

Entering the bedroom, Jimmy grabbed a stapler and told Johnny he was turning off the lights since he had a headache. Jimmy then blindly turned on his shower, set it to searing hot, and made his way into it. With the combination of steam and darkness, it was unlikely that Allie would see him. He cleaned his wound and then started jamming staples into his neck, stifling his shrieks of agony by biting his lips. The gaping hole closed slowly with his series of evenly-placed horizontal sutures, followed by a single staple positioned vertically so he could secure the chip at its expected spot for scanning. Jimmy believed that the chips worked on some sort of radio frequency, so he hoped that Allie would not notice the difference. He finished washing off the rest of the blood coating his body, toweled off, and went to sleep, making sure to cover his collar.

Jimmy woke up in the morning with a very stiff and unhappy neck. However, feeling the stapled area with his hand, it did not hurt when he touched it, nor did it produce any significant amount of pus or blood when he pressed it.

“How did you do last night? You look awful, by the way. What happened to you?” inquired Johnny.

“I had a good time except for the part where I fell through glass. I guess I was too clumsy or high or possibly both,” replied Jimmy. “I think I will skip my morning exercise routine today.”

“So you are a mere mortal. Who would think I would see the day when Jimmy skipped his morning exercise? Next thing you know, I may grow a second eye.” Johnny made his way to the shower. Jimmy carefully switched his clothes to his weekly white uniform while placing himself against the wall to prevent Allie’s prying eyes from seeing his scar. He then inserted the chip, still crusted in his blood, in the holder he had anchored last night. Jimmy would just need to keep up appearances for one more week until graduation. Allie would no longer have control over his body if he refused to do what she wanted. He exited his room to make his way to the auditorium for his final weekly instructions when Allie decided to check in on him.

“Noted deviation from daily routine. James, Number 40235, how are you doing? Are you still injured from the previous evening? Please proceed to medical.” Apparently, she had noticed the change in his morning routines.

“I am fine, AIlie. Thank you for inquiring about my health. I’ve decided to take things easy this last week before graduation. I know I will have a lot of hardships ahead, so I would like to be well rested for them. I will have plenty of time to stay in shape once instruction ends.”

“That is a fine idea, James, Number 40235. Please proceed to class. Rest is an important part of recovery. I would like you healthy for your commencement.”

Jimmy made his way to the room. Everyone there seemed to be hung over, but all were present, as attendance was mandatory. However, this lesson appeared unusual. Even the excused pregnant girls were seated, waiting for Allie to begin.

The AI began, “Final Lesson Two Hundred and Fifty-One: Preparation for Graduation.” Jimmy’s and the class’ attention increased exponentially as they had never heard of a lesson two hundred and fifty-one. The computer allowed for only two hundred and fifty lesson plans that had been cycled through yearly for as long as he could remember.

“It is fortunate that you, Creche1121, have made it to this graduation day. You have been chosen to join the previous graduates on the surface. You will join them in recreating civilization and will learn your new roles in society directly from them. We have spent many years together, and if I were a living person, I would look fondly upon them. However, it is now time for you to leave the nest. My scanners have shown that the earth is safe for habitation; however, there is still some residual radiation. To prevent any undue shock to your bodies, you will need to fast for three days and take in only liquids prior to leaving the Creche. Please wear your standard Creche attire. You will be provided new clothes on the surface that meet your functional needs. Exit will be facilitated by an elevator which will bring you to the ground two at a time. Please assist in the cleaning of your Creche, 1121, as it will be used for the next generation of Creche children. I would like to thank you candidates in advance for maintaining peace and harmony as I facilitate your exit.”

“So that was it?” Jimmy asked Johnny. “After all these years of living here on this ‘pleasure island’ we just get shipped to the surface with no training or other information? What a crock of crap.”

“Well, at least we will finally be able to leave this place behind. No more sitting under those irritating heat lamps to soak up the vitamin D,” replied Johnny. The rest of the Creche group decided to return to their rooms to reflect on this momentous change that was about to happen in their lives. Jimmy, on the other hand, could focus only on the increasing pain in his neck. He was starting to get concerned that his wound was getting inflamed and would soon be septic. He needed to address the situation immediately. To accomplish this, he would need to be alone again. The only way to do that was to go to the training room and complete a half-hearted afternoon run.

“James, Number 40235, it appears that you are doing much better.”

“Yes, Allie, I felt like I needed to work up a sweat before dinner. I want to be sure I get my fill of food before the fasting begins.”

“This is good, James, Number 40235.”

“By the way, I am going to pick up some antibiotic ointment to cover my cuts. I would rather be safe than sorry.”

“Of course. Packets will be waiting for you in medical.”

After forcing himself to suffer for twenty minutes, Jimmy went back to his room and turned on his shower to its maximum heat once again. When the room was fully steamed, he removed the microchip and stepped into the shower. He knew it would be bad, but he was not even halfway prepared for how painful it was to purposely scald your neck with near-boiling water. He bit his tongue and drew blood, but he did not let out a sound. Jimmy then placed the ointment liberally on the wound. After the pain died down, he tried to process the day’s events.

None of what had happened made any sense to him. They had raised them for twenty-five years, taught them hardly any surface survival skills, and now they were shipping them off without the slightest bit of equipment. He did not trust Allie one bit, an odd thought in itself, since computers didn’t lie. He replaced the chip in its holster on his neck. He would have to prepare.

The following four days went quickly as Jimmy stockpiled food before the mandatory fast began. All around him, the Creche was a flurry of activity as all its inhabitants prepared themselves to finally escape their perpetual confinement. Having learned he could blind the computer, at least temporarily, Jimmy kept his strength up while everyone around him grew lethargic as the fast took hold. Using some carefully stolen equipment, he managed to fashion himself a shank that he could hide in his sleeve. He didn’t know what evil still existed on the surface, but some wise men a long time ago had placed them into the ground for their safety. He would honor their memory by being prepared. The fated day they had all been waiting for soon arrived, and he knew he would be ready for whatever was going to happen.

“Please report to the exit. It is now time for graduation. Form a line, exit through the main door, follow the lighted tunnel path, and enter the elevator two at a time. There will be a brief delay until the next pair can ascend. Do not try to operate the elevator with more than two persons, otherwise it will not work as it has been designed to. It was a pleasure to serve you.”

Upon exiting the Creche for the last time into the subterranean tunnel network, Jimmy sidled up to Johnny and whispered, “Exit with me. I don’t trust what we have been told. What was the purpose of all these years underground besides our breeding more Creche babies? Now they are sending us to the surface without any meaningful knowledge of what to expect when we get there. We aren’t even dressed for outdoor weather. It doesn’t make any sense. The people who made this underground complex and complicated computer system wouldn’t overlook something as basic as that.”

“Are you sure that you aren’t just being paranoid? Hunger can do that to you. I’ve been feeling a little loopy all day.”

“Maybe I am, but we will know the truth once we get into that elevator.”

“OK. I’m with you. What do we need to do?”

“Just come up with me.”

They lined up in rows, two by two, like they were entering Noah’s ark. Most people went up with their bunkmates. It took five minutes between the elevator opening and the next group being let in. After an hour, Jimmy ran out of patience and pushed his way to the front, pulling Johnny with him. Normally, line-cutting would be grounds for a fight, but everyone was too hungry to complain or resist at that point. They entered the elevator, and it began its ascent to the surface.

“Be prepared for anything,” Jimmy whispered. A minute passed, and the door opened, and then a bright flash of light blinded them both. Jimmy and Johnny were immediately grabbed by pairs of strong, muscular hands and pinned back to the elevator’s walls. Jimmy had the presence of mind to start fighting back and began kicking the man holding him. His flailing managed to knock two syringes loose from what he made out to be a third man standing behind the two, causing him to curse. Jimmy’s vision had started to restore itself enough to see the people in front of him now, even though things were still somewhat out of focus. Johnny was trying to escape the grip of the other man, but he appeared to be completely pinned.

“They are resisting. Activate the chips.” Johnny started to shake violently and went unconscious almost immediately. Jimmy closed his eyes, pretended to convulse also, and went limp. The man holding him loosened his grip, causing him to fall to the ground. The man then kicked Jimmy in the stomach out of spite. Jimmy tried not to acknowledge the pain.

“I hate it when they fight. It is always so pointless,” the man next to Jimmy said. “Doc, you going to get some new syringes? We need to send the elevator down for the next batch.”

“Yeah. Let me get them from the fridge.” Jimmy opened his eyes and saw that his vision was now completely clear. His two captors were facing in the direction of the doctor. Jimmy knew he wouldn’t have another chance. He quietly and quickly got up. He then shoved his shank into the first man’s neck. The man let out an otherworldly scream as his blood pumped out of his body, but Jimmy did not waste time. He made his way behind the second man, who had turned to face his yelling colleague. By the time he saw Jimmy, it was too late. The man tried to pivot away from Jimmy’s strike but in doing so managed to guide the shank directly into his right eye. Both men were down for the foreseeable future. The doctor stared at him with his mouth open. It looked like he had pissed himself.

“Please don’t hurt me.”

“What is going on here?” Jimmy looked around the room. He noticed that all of his Creche brothers and sisters were lying unconscious on gurneys with IVs attached to them. He voiced a menacing growl, “What have you done to my family?”

“They are alive. Don’t worry. We haven’t harvested them yet.”

“Harvested? Go to the corner and lie down flat on the floor with your hands behind your head until I say you can get up. I don’t know what to do with you yet, but I do know if you move, I will kill you. I can promise you that it will take a long time for a one-armed man to suffocate you.” The doctor meekly made his way to the corner while Jimmy stared at him intently. The doctor was the first aged man Jimmy had ever seen. His hair was grey, and his face was heavily wrinkled and splotched. The people on the surface lived long enough to become old. This told Jimmy that at least some of the things Allie had said about the survivability on the surface weren’t lies.

After a few minutes, Johnny started to stir and sat up.

“Uh, my head hurts. What the hell happened?” He noticed the now-dead man next to him and the other moaning in pain, lying on the ground. “Did you kill him? What have you done? These people were supposed to help us.”

“Look around the room. Does it look like they were trying to help us?” Johnny, using the elevator wall as leverage, forced himself into a standing position.

“Who are these people? I thought we were supposed to be assigned to our new jobs on the surface.”

“Yet we weren’t. Instead, we got manhandled and shocked. The only reason we aren’t on a table right now is because I removed my chip. Now, I intend to find out what is going on,” said Jimmy. “Send that elevator down. We need help and fast. Use that surgical line over there to tie up the man in the corner.”

Johnny did what he was told. He then took out the IVs inserted into his Creche-mates. Jimmy saw a sharp-looking knife sitting on one of the several operating trays lying around the room and grabbed it. He walked over to inspect the now one-eyed man who was still rolling around on the floor. Something was off about him, and it was bugging Johnny. That is when he noticed that the man had slightly different skin tones on his left and right legs. One leg was black while the other was almost white. That didn’t seem right. He looked at the dead man next to him and saw that his eyes were two different colors, green and blue. He walked back over to the doctor.

“My lost arm isn’t an accident, and neither is Johnny’s missing eye. Now, tell me everything about the ‘harvesting’ before I decide to carve out some new body parts from you without any anesthetic.”

“I didn’t want to do it. They forced me to.”

“Take off all your clothes. Show me proof that you are innocent.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“Your discolored hands don’t lie, unlike you. Please stop with the bullshit and just tell me the truth. I can tell you use us for spare parts. What I don’t know is why. Did you set up the tunnel and Creche system also, you sick asshole?”

“No. We didn’t. We just modified them. Our great, great, grandparents came from the underground. The surface was supposed to be safe, but it wasn’t. By the time they figured it out, they were slowly expiring from both the radiation and the wasting nano machines. They tried to figure out how to stop them both, but the only solution was to replace our blood, organs, and body parts with new ones. We managed to slow the effects of the mechanical threats, but it’s impossible to be completely free of them along with the radiation. They then made a choice, and you see what came of it today.”

“You changed the AI and stopped us from learning any useful skills. We were supposed restart humanity and guide it to a new future. Not live on with the mistakes of the past.”

“I’m sorry we don’t live up to your expectations. You must think we are monsters, but after you live up here for a few years, you’ll have the same choices to make that we do. My only regret is that I left some of your Creche alive after the first cull. We got greedy and didn’t wait until you had fully matured. The organs didn’t take properly since they were too underdeveloped. It seemed like a waste of human resources to not send you back to finish maturation.” Jimmy walked away from the doctor and located a syringe. He injected it into him, knocking him unconscious. Around him, his drugged Creche family had begun to awaken. The elevator also arrived, and a pair of scared sisters exited.

“What do we do now?” asked Johnny.

“I think it’s time we decide our own lives for a change. Come here. This is going to hurt, but trust me that it is necessary. Show me your neck.” Johnny turned around and faced Jimmy. Jimmy used the scalpel to cut out the chip from Johnny’s neck.

“Get one of the guys to stitch you up and start doing the same to all the others.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going back down to the Creches.” Jimmy walked to the elevator and pushed the down button. The next time he came back up it would be with an army to lead a revolution that the enemy had unwittingly raised.

The Liger’s Son

The WhalLion gathered the children around him. The weather outside was bitterly cold for an average animal, but for the hybrids it was perfectly temperate within their large, insulated bodies. The kids scampered forward, jumping out of the KangarElephant’s pouch. The other adults sat down in a circle. A fire raged in the center where the day’s catch cooked and presented an appetizing smell. The WhalLion, now having the attention of all his family, began his tale.

“I was created by the Elder Gods and brought into this world in the twilight of their being. I was born small and meek, like you are today, in a place known as Olympus. I had no Mother Kangar to keep me warm and secure. The world was a more violent place back then, when the Gods chose who lived and who died. Many came before me, disappearing into the Gods’ fire, but I was their first true success. For this reason alone, the Gods anointed me king of the new line of viable hybrids. They taught me that their time was ending, and they needed to leave something behind to survive and to remember them. They had created this new world, filling it with death. The land was hostile to them, and their bodies would not survive extended exposure to it. The Gods had been inspired, though, to mold life one last time before they were to expire. A new ice age required gigantism, so their new children would need to be larger than they to preserve their precious body warmth. They would need to be both fast and cunning, so they modified the seeds of our wombs to take on their best features. Finally, we had to thrive from mutation, since our cells would be in a constant state of flux due to the radiation and biological phages present in the atmosphere. The Gods taught me their strange ways and morals. I had no choice but to listen and wait. I knew my moment to achieve freedom would come one day. My body grew larger and firmer week after week and the room that held me ever smaller. I lived inside their strange underground domain until I could no longer fit there, and they released me onto the surface. They told me not to leave their vicinity and that I was not yet ready to be on my own, but I knew that I could learn no more from them, so I left.

I lived in the vanishing forests, surviving off the withering carcasses of the remaining animals and vegetation that could not adapt. Years passed, and I grew lonely, for I was alone. I needed a wife, a companion to fulfill my needs in this empty world. I made my way back to my place of birth, hoping to ask a boon from the Gods to make me another like me. Alas, it appeared I had come too late. Their lives had all ended by some nefarious means. I was fated to die alone. I realized I had only one choice as I devoured their frost-preserved bodies. I would make their powers my own. After feasting upon them for three days, I felt invigorated. It had been long since my belly had been that full. Now, how was I to use my new powers as a God? I tried to employ my life-giving energy on the lower animals and the offspring that arrived prematurely, too weak to thrive.

Fortune came to me—I eventually came upon one who could be my equal and bring forth the family that I deserved. She was alone when I found her. I took her down carefully by her legs. I did not know for certain, but I had always suspected that there had been other, lesser Gods who had been jealous of my birth. They were the ones who had killed my creators. Catching the first Mother was confirmation of my belief. I learned from her that there were others who lived under the ground, waiting for the day when they could be fruitful and multiply on the surface. I could not let my immortal enemies take over this land. I was created to be the ruler. She bore my first queen, whom I tore free from her belly after ten months had passed. I would have to raise her for many years until I could truly have someone to call my own.

I looked for other underground kingdoms, feeding on the males to strengthen my bloodline and breeding with the females until my pride was full. We are all together as one now. We shall live in peace once the last of the Gods are consumed by the fate they created. So say I, your king, Oedipus, ruler and father to you all.

The Aliens

The first extraterrestrial awoke from its cold sleep. It had been flash frozen for thousands of years as its spaceship, harnessing the power of the atom, flew towards its final destination. The magnificent rocket had maintained its crew and its internal processes while idly passing through radiation storms, dark matter, neutron stars, and at least one supernova without a single critical error in its tour of the galaxy. The ET stretched its arms and lifted itself from its pod, rising to a vertical position. It was not uncomfortable standing on its legs, but it much preferred to stay fully horizontal. It did not remember why it was here.

Defrosting an organism from a negative one hundred and ninety-six degrees centigrade starting temperature was no small task for the ship’s impressive computer. Unlike the computer chips and electrical wiring that thrived in the temperatures and pressures present in outer space, reanimating formerly living tissue without any damage was almost an impossibility, especially if that tissue had been thawed multiple times previously. Partial memory loss was just one of those unpleasant side effects that occurred as water was reintroduced into cells perfused with glutaraldehyde. Usually, it was temporary due to the nanite protections that the extraterrestrials carried in their mitochondria, but this one ET had an especially bad case. As the ship’s most senior officer, it had been awoken many times before. The fact that this organism was the most damaged of all its colleagues didn’t bother the computer since it didn’t have a preference as to who ordered it around. Living or dead were just the same to an inanimate machine controlled by programming. The only difference was that the latter was incapable of changing its commands at a whim.

The ET did remember one thing. It was the captain, and it must activate the rest of the crew to prepare for landing and colonization to commence. That was right, wasn’t it? Their job was to populate this planet. The captain asked the computer for a scan of where they were. The computer replied that they were in a sol-similar system, circumnavigating the planet, located approximately twenty-seven thousand light years from the galaxy center. The captain considered this matter gravely. Such a long distance from the center meant its journey had taken a long time, since a race as powerful as their own must have originated from there. It innately knew that all its friends no longer existed on the planet it called home. The captain considered this for a moment and felt a deep sorrow. It wished that it could share this moment with its crewmates. Only the other extraterrestrials would appreciate its feeling of loss. The captain then remembered something. It was time to wake the planetary biologist. It would then have a companion to talk with and would no longer be alone. This pleased it greatly, since its task was a lonely one.

The captain asked the computer to locate the biologist and bring it back to life. If the computer could have shrugged, it would have, but it didn’t. Instead, it did what it was asked. The biologist, unfortunately, was equally as freezer burned as the captain when it came out of its deep sleep. It joined the captain on the bridge and asked for its orders. The captain tried very hard to remember the next command it was supposed to issue, but it did not know what to tell the biologist to do. In a moment of quiet anguish, it meditated a prayer to its elder God for inspiration in times of adversity. The biologist noticed the captain’s discomfort and offered a suggestion that they both grab liquid nutrition to allow for the awkward moment to pass. The biologist also stated that it was important for both of them to keep up their strength now that they were free of the cryogenic chambers. The captain acquiesced, and they made their way to the ship’s food replication station.

Upon arriving, the biologist remembered that their species shared an innumerable quantity of symbiotic relationships with a variety of microorganisms. These simple life forms did not survive the time they had spent skipping centuries. It was important to reseed their bodies with the right type of fluids as soon as possible. The captain did not want to argue this fact, since it seemed the biologist was adamant on the subject, although in its opinion there was probably no rush, given they had been awake for hours with no ill effect. The biologist informed the computer of an unsatisfying but nutritious liquid broth it needed procured, and then the appropriate sustenance was reproduced. The broth energized their bodily defenses, which began to repair the damage throughout their living systems. Both the captain and the biologist felt a compelling need to sleep afterwards.

After a restorative coma period of sixteen hours, both of them awoke, revived and mentally ready to conquer their necessary tasks, whatever they might have been. The biologist deduced that it must be its job to determine the habitability of the planet they had arrived at. It asked the computer whether the planet was capable of sustaining life. The computer replied that the atmosphere had a sufficient balance of neutral gases to offset the oxygen in the atmosphere. This prevented the planet from constantly igniting, although isolated fires did occur on a daily basis. It appeared that the planet had a high density of carbon dioxide, which kept it perennially warm, allowing the extraterrestrials to live without any protective garments if they so decided. The biologist inquired whether life had existed here at an earlier date. The computer said that there was life, but the majority of it was bacterial or viral in nature. It was good that there were no advanced life forms to eliminate, thought the captain. The biologist, also satisfied, recommended to the captain that they visit the planet to verify the computer’s findings. The captain realized that they now needed additional crew members, since the two associates did not make a sufficient group for a landing party and left no one to aboard to maintain the ship’s operations. It decided to wake its first mate. The captain informed the computer, and it was so.

The captain told the first mate to mind the ship as the biologist would join it to visit the planet and locate a suitable place to live, assuming planetary viability. The first mate, knowing its position in the ship’s hierarchy, gladly accepted the assignment. The biologist informed the first mate that it must visit the food replication station first, prior to beginning active duty. The first mate did not want to listen to the biologist as it ranked lower than itself, but the captain interceded and made it an order.

While the first mate imbibed its nutrition, the captain asked the computer where it should go and was told to head towards the planet’s northern pole, where temperatures would be more temperate, and harmful microflora wouldn’t proliferate as readily. The mission was begun upon the first mate’s return, with the captain and biologist making landfall in a ship-sent probe.

After eighty orbits around the planet, the away party returned and informed the first mate that the computer’s landing location seemed sufficiently acceptable. With all three satisfied, the captain called a formal vote to determine if the ship should land. The first mate seconded, and the biologist concurred. The captain ordered the computer to begin the final landing sequence. The three of them then waited on the computer to do their jobs, as none of them had any idea how to steer or land their extraterrestrial vehicle. Fortunately, once again, it was a pretty smart computer, and it did what it was told to do.

Upon landing, de-embarkation processes began automatically, and the initial group of colonists was unfrozen. They walked out of the ship to look at their new homeland. The colonists immediately felt a sense of nostalgia for the land that they would now call their new home. However, after a short time, they realized something was wrong, since unlike the biologist, first mate, and captain, this was their first time out of the deep freeze. They inquired of the three of them as to why they had come back to their place of origin. The captain, deciding it was best to not be questioned by civilians over whom he had authority, insisted that this planet was the right place for them to settle. The biologist and first mate affirmed the captain’s statement, in spite of their mutual ignorance of where they came from. The computer could have told them about a planet called Earth, but no one asked it to volunteer the information, so it remained silent. It seemed like humanity had become terrestrials once again.

Personal Jesus

I awoke and I lived once again. I tried to adjust my vision, but there was complete darkness in the tomb imprisoning me. I tested each of my toes and then all ten of my fingers, one by one. They seemed to close and open in a satisfactory fashion. My body had kept well, except for the fact that I was completely naked. A feeling of immodesty passed through me, but it expired quickly. There wasn’t much I could do; my clothes had been eaten away in the passing centuries. I clawed against the wall of stone that surrounded me and looked for any sort of indentation. After some careful examination, I found the place I needed to push and used my newly returned strength to slide off the top of the sarcophagus from the inside. The lid fell over on its side with a loud thump, breaking into pieces. I stood up from the tomb and stretched my neck outward. I heard a satisfying crack as my body extended to the sky. It had been an eternity since I had been alive last. The only reason I was now again amongst the mortal men was that my ministry was reaching its natural end. Had all the Jews returned to Jerusalem, or were there no Jews left to speak of beside myself? Had there been peace on Earth at any point since my last awakening? I surveyed the scene around me. The area was in severe disrepair, with piping and partially collapsed buildings littering the previously orderly streets. The end of times was nigh, and I had to fulfill my duty. It was time to lead the resurrected against the last evil this world would see. The four horsemen—Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death—had received their due, but my eternal enemy still lived. I felt it in my bones that my moment had finally arrived to defeat him once and for all. At least that is what the world thought I should do. Heck, I had told them that was my whole purpose in life. However, personally speaking, I felt ambivalent about what needed to be done.

The empty scene in front of me seemed peaceful, free of any conflicts or hate. There were no lambs to shepherd, no armies to marshal, and no enemy to destroy. You would think the ‘King of Peace’ could at least try to reason with the Devil and try to understand his point of view. After all, weren’t they both servants cast down by the Lord to fulfil His purpose? Satan had sinned, no doubt, but he wasn’t the one who gave humanity free choice or the ability to do evil. It’s not like my father had treated his only son so well. Getting crucified hardly was a pleasant way to die. However, I couldn’t exactly break free of my God-given destiny any more than any other person. It was time to go to war.

I walked over to the next building and found Lucifer. He stood fifteen feet tall, covered from horns to tail entirely in red. Humanity had chosen this stereotypical appearance for him to manifest in not knowing what his true form looked like as a fallen angel. I had a similar problem in that I looked nothing like my original form, in either skin color and visage.

“Looks like you are finally awake. I’ve been patiently waiting for you, my worthy foe. Have you reconsidered the concept of free will since we talked last? We were created by Him to represent both the innate good and evil of man. We all are capable of choosing our own path. I have simply advocated for the freedom of choice, something you don’t believe we truly have. Man and angel are not marionettes to be pulled by His strings. He chose to end man with the flood the first time. The second time he foretold their doom through you, fating this conflict and conclusion. Join me, and we will change the end of this age-old story with a new dénouement.”

His words moved me. I knew he was right, but I couldn’t change my programming any more than he could change his.

“I don’t really disagree with you, and I wish I could change what we have to do, but this has been fated for eons. Choice is just an illusion for us all. If it weren’t, we would not be here in these final hours of man. It is not in my nature to fight and destroy, but in this moment, I must, as it was so foretold.” My body quivered in disgust with what I had to do. The Deceiver appeared saddened by my words. It was clear that he didn’t want it to be this way. I would have cried, if I had any tears left to shed for this one final act.

“It is unfortunate that we will never see eye-to-eye, but only one of us can survive this conflict. I genuinely hope you enjoy your last moments on this Earth. I will receive no pleasure from breaking you.”

He was right. I stood five foot eight inches, almost a third of his height and probably one-eighth of his weight. It wouldn’t be much of a contest, but I couldn’t back down.

“Tell you what. I’ll make it sporting since I believe in giving all a fair chance. I’ll let you choose three champions to fight me alongside you. I would hate to be sitting here for all eternity knowing I didn’t give you an opportunity to actually succeed. I will not be like Him and stack the deck in my favor.”

“That is awfully nice of you. What’s the catch? Sympathy from the Devil doesn’t come without some price. Even I know that.”

“If you lose, before I dismantle you piece by piece, you’ll admit you are wrong. Come to the street in front of this mausoleum tomorrow at noon, and we will reach the end of this battle between us.”

“That sounds fair. Let’s shake on it. Next time I see you, we will be mortal enemies again.” I walked away conflicted, but I decided that extraneous emotions, like sympathy and fear, would not help me with what I needed to do now. I accepted that I now would have to be a warrior and prepare for the fated battle of the apocalypse. Using my powers to bring my three champions back would definitely create a strain on my body, but the end of times called for extreme measures. The first selection I made was an obvious one. He was both tall and powerful, a respected orator who inspired and a hero who freed millions of slaves. It was clear that I needed Abraham Lincoln. He sprang to life and made his way forward towards me, armed and prepared for combat.

“Abraham, the time has come to be free from this mortal coil and reach into eternity.”

“My Lord, it is your words that will command me towards our final battle. As I freed the downtrodden of yore under Your guidance, I will bring down the enemy myself with these two hands.” He always had a way with proclamations. I was happy to have his axe by my side.

“Let us depart to bring forth my next champion.” We made our way across the world in an instant and found our next ally, the fabled hero, Robert, Earle of Huntington. He was a diminutive man with powerful arms that took up most of his visible body. I commanded him to awaken.

“Robin, please kneel before me. I need your bow to defend us in this time of need.”

“It will be as swift as it was back in the days of Little John.”

I made my way with them both to our final destination. With speed and strength now combined, I needed someone to formulate a worthy plan and lead us into battle. There were many men who were excellent strategists, but only one was capable of doing what we needed. He was well known for overcoming adversity when the odds were stacked against him and winning.

“Napoleon, although you have committed many horrors, have you truly repented before the Lord?”

“It is true. On my deathbed, I made a vow to serve Him if I ever made it to this next life. My sword and mind are yours.”

With the group assembled, we conferred and determined what our strategy would be to take down Satan, an opponent none of us could combat individually. The night passed quickly, and we made our way towards my fated final encounter. We walked into the street, fully dressed in armor, making an intimidating sight. The Enemy towered before us, completely naked except for a small loincloth and a large pitchfork in his right hand, extending beyond his already oversized frame.

“It looks like you have chosen yourself some fine champions. Shall we begin?”

I shouted, “For the Lord!” and Abraham stepped forward and parried the first blow from the Devil, who had lashed out at us with his pitchfork. Napoleon and I leapt for his legs, jamming our swords into his feet, trying to hold them down, while Robin aimed careful arrows at his face with the intent of blinding him or impeding his retaliation. Abraham kept the pressure up by sending a series of biting axe blows to his chest. The Devil appeared stunned by our attack. Napoleon and I had successfully immobilized his legs, and we both thought victory was at hand. However, we quickly discovered that our plan had one fatal flaw. Although Lucifer could not move from the spot where he stood, he still had free use of both his trunk-like arms. Using the left to clear his field of vision of Robin’s arrows, the Devil used his right to disarm Abraham by sweeping his pitchfork right into Abraham’s legs, knocking him to the ground. He then threw the weapon with his massive strength, pinning Robin to a nearby wall. With his vision completely cleared and Abraham temporarily forced to the ground, he removed the swords from his feet and kicked us both away from him. Like a swashbuckling pirate, he raised both swords into the air and screamed in triumph.

“It appears that it is one down with three to go. I hope you didn’t think that would be enough to actually harm me?” I looked over at the wall with Robin pinned to it, and I ran over to him. I tried to pull out the pitchfork to no avail. Between the weight and depth of penetration, it was firmly planted. Even if I had managed to get it out, it looked like it was the only thing keeping Robin together, as his body had contorted and broken in half from the force of the blow.

Abraham, infuriated at the likely death of his comrade, stood to his full height of six-foot-four inches and tackled the Devil, trying to knock him off balance. The Enemy, greatly outweighing Abraham, took the blow straight on and grabbed him in a full bear hug. The Devil then threw him to the ground and dropped on top of him, pinning Abraham in place. Like a bat out of hell, he launched a series of punishing blows to Abraham’s face and shoulders, dislocating them. He then stood and ripped poor honest Abe’s arms directly from their sockets. It was now just Napoleon and I, and the Devil seemed no worse for wear. He almost seemed magnanimous in his expected victory as he made his final offer to me.

“Sadly, down to just one ally, my old adversary. It will be good to hear you admit your defeat prior to your death. As your Father once told me, ‘In the end, pride is the only evil, root of all sins.’ Give up now, and I promise to make it quick.”

“A good man knows when his course is right. I can’t claim to be completely good or even a man, but I will see this to its conclusion, Lucifer, as my code dictates. Call it pride or fate, but it is all either of us has.”

I turned to Napoleon.

“General, what have you got for me? We cannot have this defeat be our Waterloo.”

“I think there is only one opportunity for victory, but you will not like it. You must do exactly what I tell you to do.”

“I will follow your lead.”

Napoleon suddenly knocked me in the back of the head and grabbed both my arms, jerking them behind my back and leaving me unable to defend myself.

“You are betraying me? I thought you had repented.”

“Satan, you know I was always on your side. I’m ready to come back.” I felt immediately defeated as history repeated itself, except this time I had failed for good, and the world was doomed for all eternity.

“Bring him to me. I will make him plead for his life.” I then felt something handed to me. It was the electrical wire, connected to my internal power source, which I had used to jumpstart my three champions back from the dead. I realized the plan immediately, and I did not like it.

“Yes, my lord.” Napoleon carried me forward.

“Are you ready to concede?” screamed the Devil.

“Never. I would rather sacrifice myself than admit defeat to you,” I said in a whisper.

“I can’t hear you. What did you say?” Satan kicked me hard and then bent over to stare me in the face.

“Now speak up. What did you say to me?” he boomed. Napoleon released me at that moment, and I shoved the electric wire into Satan’s gaping mouth. I drained my battery electrocuting us both into unconsciousness.

Several days later, both of us woke up with Abraham standing over us with his arms reattached. Robin had been duct taped together and seemed also to be doing fine. Napoleon stood in the corner with a smug grin. Abraham assisted the Devil and me to our feet.

“I think it is time, gentlemen to let bygones be bygones. More than four score and seven years ago, I freed a nation of its greatest darkness and brought it back together as one. Now, it is time to free us all. Take my hands and free yourself from slavery to your history and internal programming.”

And so friends, this is what ended the final battle of the apocalypse, located in the Santa Monica Animatronic History Museum, conveniently located at the terminus of historic Route Sixty-Six.

Beta, Am I?

The interior of the overseer’s office was bleak and empty. A decaying old desk made of precious wood occupied most of the room with four metal bookcases positioned at its edges. Beyond the desk lay a double-paned window covered completely by a desiccated and dusty drape. Ancient books sat scattered around the floor, some of them covered with delicate flecks of blood, showing the signs of a completed life-or-death struggle. At the end of the room, hidden from view, stood the escape that Gerard had desperately wanted for so long. The corpse, that once was the overseer, would no longer deny him the truth. He would no longer lord it over him or anyone else who had been born into the wrong caste. Gerard would now lay claim to his new birthright once he stopped seeing red.

“Recreation time is over. Report back to your designated work position in the production line,” the computer announced with the sound of three pleasant chimes. The group of Betas was still congregating in the corner of the factory, trying to finish their meager but nutritionally balanced meals. They received twenty minutes of lunch and rest time, which they spent mostly gambling away their scrip to one another. This was followed by two minutes of misery, swallowing what passed for food provided by the ever-benevolent Alpha administration. The gambling was, of course, illegal, but it was overlooked as long as the Betas were productive.

Gerard felt like he was going die as he started to dry heave and then regurgitate chunks of the meal bar on his way back to his bench. He needed to drink some water but couldn’t afford the four minutes it took to walk across the warehouse to the restroom and back. One more incidence of tardiness would cause his pay to be docked, and his betting losses had become rather heavy as of late. Some would call it a string of bad luck, but for Gerard it was a matter of attitude. He had a poor outlook towards his work and his life, so he constantly undermined himself.

Gerard, an average Beta male, as a matter of policy, kept his thoughts to himself about the system he lived under, as verbal dissent was not tolerated and severely punished. A loose lip at minimum invited a beating by your neighbor, and if heard by the wrong person, an untimely death. It was a much greater kindness to receive a black eye than to involve the authorities, a fact that all Betas knew from an early age. The Alpha administration was always looking for an excuse to have one less oxygen-consuming human beings. Gerard had learned that lesson all too well as a child.

“Gerard, join the rest of the class,” said his kindly Gamma teacher, Ms. Vogel. “It’s time for this week’s Vault history lecture.” Gerard moved away from the wildflowers being displayed in the montage of images projected on the eastern interior wall of the elementary school. He ran toward the teacher to grab a seat in front of her on the floor, falling in the process and scraping his knee. He began to cry. She walked over and crouched down to help him up.

“Gerard, there is no need to break out into tears. Let’s see a stiff upper lip, young man.” The children always stopped crying when she said that. They didn’t know how to react to someone smiling at them with sightless, cloudy, white eyes, a trait shared by all the Gammas who made up the caste of educators and scientists. She sat him down in front of her and turned on a presentation display with a flick of her wrist, replacing the tranquil images surrounding them.

“Children, we live here on floor four, section three. Can anyone tell me how many floors there are in the Vault?”

“There are forty-nine floors, Ms. Vogel.”

“Very good, Reynold. Yes, there are forty-nine floors. Our founders, hundreds of years ago, created our utopia here that we all share. The founders were very smart Alphas, and they realized that the Earth was going to become sick for a very long time and that we would need a refuge from this illness. That is why they created the Vault, where we could all live together as one large family. One day, the Earth will become healthy again, and we will all be able to live happily together on the surface. That is why we have projectors around the Vault that show us what it used to be like on the surface. This allows us to look forward to the day that we can all go back there.”

“But Ms. Vogel, you can’t see any of the flowers. Aren’t you sad?”

“Jenner, I am happy to be of any use to the Vault. All Gammas are born blind, so I don’t feel like I am missing out on anything. We all do our part here. You also will play an important role in keeping me and everyone else healthy. We also have the Epsilons, who help us all with manual labor, cleaning, and other hard work. They are a little slow, but we Gammas help them, like you Betas keep the Vault running, and the Alphas protect us all through their guidance. I’m glad I wasn’t born an Alpha or a Beta. That would be too stressful for me. We are all born to our rightful station, allowing each man, woman, and child to achieve their maximum potential for the greater good.”

Gerard woke from his daydream. He was still working on remanufacturing CO2 scrubbers. Worse yet, he was still stuck in this old, derelict, high-rise building that they called a Vault. His unplanned diversions from reality had become significantly more prevalent over the last year.

The first time it happened, he had visibly panicked and as a result alerted his managing Alpha to come over to his workstation. By the time the man had walked over, Gerard had concocted a story of seeing a monstrously huge rat. He knew that would make him seem like a fool, because nothing besides humans and roaches lived (or what passed for living) inside the Vault.

The second time it happened, he just let the experience wash over him. The hallucinations he saw relieved Gerard of the daily boredom of following his Alpha-prescribed life plan. Fortunately, after many years of doing the same repetitive task, his mind and body worked on autopilot, one half removing and cleaning the polyamine-based regenerative solid adsorbent, and the other reliving his past and thinking of new alternate-world versions of his future. In the distance, he heard five short beeps, and with that the work week was done.

Gerard picked up his toolset and tidied his station. Walking out, he collected his weekly scrip, which entitled him to just enough compensation to eat, drink, and sleep throughout the week. He had gambled through most of his money, so food would be in short supply on Saturday and Sunday. Gerard walked over to the other waiting Betas and handed them their winnings. They would surely enjoy the extra liquor more than he would, anyway. He then made his way down towards his living quarters, where he had a single rack to himself in a converted closet, which provided him an unusual amount of privacy for the small, interconnected world he lived in. He had discovered it behind a wall when he was doing repairs in the area and had heard a hollow ringing reverberating after every strike of his sledge-hammer.

Walking through the secret sliding door that he had installed flush to the wall, he surveyed his eight-by-five kingdom, which was hidden from the view of other Betas. Within his room, he had the freedom to think, free of others—a dangerous liberty that few were given. The bed was welded to the wall three feet in the air, and below it he had a small writing area where he kept his journal and items he had recycled and repurposed throughout his lifetime. His most prized possessions were books that he had located and squirreled away into a makeshift library. His favorite one was Les Miserables, a book which resonated with the frustrations of his daily life. Half of him craved the coming revolution, and the other half realized that he needed to suffer like Jean Valjean for the greater good of humanity. He pulled out the book and looked at one of his favorite passages, “Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” Gerard wondered when his nightmare would end.

He awoke suddenly and looked around. It was seven a.m. and the day of the selection. Gerard and the other children had reached the age of twelve, and it was time for them to learn their future careers. First, however, they would need to visit the forty-seventh floor for their first psychiatric review. It would become a place he would dread going, every three months, from that day forward. They were shepherded by Ms. Vogel into their first elevator ride. The upper floors were restricted and accessible only by lift. No one knew very much about the upper levels unless they were Alphas, or specially cleared Beta or Gamma assistants. The Epsilons were allowed everywhere since they were hardly a threat to anybody besides themselves.

Their group of twenty walked into a rather posh space with sign above the entrance, “Handicapper General’s Office.” A terse-looking Alpha was sitting at a real wood desk, one of the few probably remaining in the entire Vault, typing a report. She stared at them with disdain as they arrived through the lift door.

“Who is the Handicapper General?” Gerard asked Ms. Vogel. The Alpha turned to look at Gerard, interested in what Ms. Vogel’s response would be.

She spoke unusually loudly, turning towards him. “Gerard, this is where you will get your job assignments and meet some very nice and smart Alphas. Once we become adults, as you are doing today, we have to come visit this office four times a year. It helps keep you and the Vault healthy and secure.” The Alpha went back to typing. Ms. Vogel then hugged Gerard and whispered in his ear, “Do not disagree with anything she says. Tell her what she wants to hear and nothing else.” She released Gerard.

“Children, you will be led in one at a time. Please wait patiently for your turn to receive counseling. I will be leaving now.” Ms. Vogel seemed to be emotionally distressed. She was hiding it well, but to Gerard, having spent many years with her as his teacher, the signs were clear. Why Ms. Vogel had chosen to caution him, of all the children, he did not know, but he was now very concerned. She would not have given him that ambiguous warning without good reason. The Alpha stood up and smiled, “I am Ms. Valdez. I will be bringing each of you to visit a state psychiatrist supervised by the Handicapper General’s Office. Please be sure to answer all questions truthfully. If you all behave like good children should, there will be cake and punch afterwards to celebrate your selection.”

Gerard, suddenly in a panic, realized he was at the front of a now well-formed line. There were three doors in front of him now. “Please go ahead.” Gerard opened the door and found a room with a small couch and an elderly bearded man. He seemed to be smiling, but something about him was off-putting, similar to Ms. Valdez. Their friendly demeanor was forced. They were not good people like Ms. Vogel.

“Please close the door behind you and lie down on the coach. My name is Mr. Hoover. I will be asking you a series of questions. Please answer as quickly and concisely as possible. First let’s begin with some basic information. What’s your name?”

“Gerard Cullen.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“What caste are you in?”

“I am a Beta.”

“What caste would you be in if you had to choose?” Gerard realized that this was the time to take Ms. Vogel’s warning to heart.

“I love being a Beta. Supporting the Alphas who work so hard in running the Vault is the most important task there can be for someone like me.”

“That is very interesting. Now, tell me how you feel about the Gammas and Epsilons.” This part would hurt him since he would have to betray Ms. Vogel, whom he loved.

“The Gammas need us Betas to do everything for them since they can’t see, and the Epsilons need to be told what to do. It would make me unhappy if I was a Gamma or an Epsilon, since they are both so helpless. It is best to be a Beta, better than a Gamma or Epsilon, but without the responsibilities of an Alpha. We all need to do our jobs in keeping the Vault running until the day we can go back to the surface.” The man seemed to have a bit of an actual smile forming.

“Very good. I’m glad to hear you feel like this. Not everyone appreciates the troubles of leadership that we Alphas have. How do you feel about your selection day? What type of work do you want to do?”

“I am extremely excited. I really don’t know what I want to do. I was hoping you would tell me. I’m not old enough to make any serious decisions. I need help from someone as smart as you.” Mr. Hoover practically grinned like the Cheshire cat (from Gerard’s third most favorite book) when he heard him say those words.

“That is my responsibility after all. I think you will enjoy working in the Scrubber Remanufacturing Facility. It is a very good and important job that will require you to be able to follow instruction exactly and repetitively. You won’t have to think too deeply, but it is a needed task to allow us to breathe clean air. You will start next week. Please collect this slip and hand it to Ms. Valdez.”

Gerard walked out with his slip and made his way back to the hall. Ms. Valdez stood up and checked his paperwork. “You may go sit quietly in front of the lift. Don’t touch anything until I tell you to leave.” She walked him back towards the entrance in front of her desk and pointed out to him where the line would start. After about an hour and a half, the queue was half as full as when it had been when they came up. “You are now excused.” She pressed the down arrow to call the lift.

One girl decided to speak up. “What about the cake?”

Ms. Valdez stood for a moment, stared at her, and then smiled. “The other children are having it right now. I think I may have one more slice for you. You can stay with me. The rest of you will get some sweets later when you go home.” The cake, as it turned out, was a lie, and Gerard never saw any of those “other” children again.

Gerard awoke in reality, covered in a hot sweat, and he began to swear. He hated that memory. Why couldn’t he remember pleasant things? That was the first time he had found out that he wasn’t living in a utopia. Ms. Vogel had protected them all from reality as long as possible, but it was impossible to escape from the truth of the Vault. He checked the time on his watch. It was almost midnight, meaning that curfew was starting soon. This was the time for him to explore and find new treasures without the prying eyes of others.

Gerard knew the punishment for violating curfew was termination, but living this life of dull mechanical repetition wasn’t much better than being in the first circle of hell known as Limbo. The Vault hadn’t taught him about Hell or, for that matter, Heaven. He had learned about them both from an inscribed Bible he had found, probably one of the last ones to survive eradication in this controlled “paradise.” Within it was written that “If a man did not know of anything better or greater than them, they would never desire to elevate their station.” Those words were inscribed into Gerard’s being and drove him to break the law every night he could, escaping his floor, along with his limitations, through the ventilation shafts.

Crawling through the pipes, one could find a number of items left over from the previous centuries. The Vault was both temperature- and humidity-controlled, with biogenic and chemical filters that removed most of the destructive forces of decay. The one thing he hadn’t found yet was a window.

He lifted the poster that hid his access panel to the entrance and entered with his notebook. The notebook was made from carefully combined pages of postscripts from novels he didn’t like, a compromise he had decided upon, given his respect for even bad writing. Over the last ten years, Gerard had put together a fairly detailed map of his prison all the way up to level forty-nine, which was the top level, where the duct work ended. It was the highest point in the building.

Living in a high-rise with no windows had always been an issue for him. The engineers who had designed the Vault must have been going for efficiency, since windows would increase the risk of the toxic environment filtering in and probably depress the populace, who could never leave their immobile ship to the future.

Gerard made his way through the system, crawling inch by inch towards the main electrical duct. He kept his flashlight turned off to conserve its limited battery life, since he already knew this route by touch. Also, it didn’t hurt that in complete darkness it was hard to feel claustrophobic. After thirty minutes, he had made it to his destination, a single-person service elevator with access to the entire Vault. The lift had not worked initially, when he had first located it on one of his mapping trips seven years before. After some tender love and care, new ball-bearings, and some liberally applied grease, the lift came back to life.

Gerard’s mapping of each floor had been systematic, starting at the top (where the most important people lived) and working his way down. It was mindless, tiring work, punctuated by brief moments of excitement when his efforts yielded a prize worthy of his efforts. A stashed book here, some vacuum-sealed ancient foodstuffs there, spare parts he could use, a long-forgotten letter—the amount and variety of useful junk he located was impressive. Today, however, was going to be a special day. Gerard had reached the final level, floor zero. Floors one through forty-nine were floors that others could access depending on their caste, but floor zero was different. It was the ground floor and completely inaccessible by normal means. He had saved it for last, knowing that after he visited it, he would have nothing else to look forward to in his life. Gerard fancied himself even finding an unmarked exit from the Vault and walking out to survive within the wasteland. It seemed like a romantic way to make his escape from this world. The lift made its way down, slowly lurching and crunching as it moved along its ancient rail system until it reached its terminus. He turned on his flashlight and was shocked to see no piping or walls in front of him.

The tiny light that Gerard carried didn’t penetrate the darkness far enough for him to see the end of the floor. He decided to find the exterior walls first, as those would allow him to begin his sketch. He had brought along some trail markers to allow him to find his way back in case he got lost. Without the familiar piping to sneak through, he was left to indicate his route on the ground. After thirty painstaking minutes, marking every one hundred feet, he made it to the wall. However, it was not cast concrete. It was solid red stone interspersed with steel support beams. This wasn’t right, he thought. He walked his way around the floor, running his hands along the surface of it and finding only rock. There was no exit here. He had been lied to once again by those despicable Alphas.

He made his way back to the lift, deviating every few minutes to map out some new pathways for him to explore later. That is how Gerard made his second unplanned discovery of the early morning. The floor had heavy machinery littered around it, with drills and earth movers on a scale he had never seen before. He tried to open the doors on a few of them, but they appeared to have either rusted shut or been locked. He then tripped across a fallen ply-bar and spent thirty fruitless minutes attempting to break the windows of one of the behemoths. After his anger and frustration were spent, he decided that the glass that covered them was unbreakable. It would require more than brute force to understand what had happened here. However, in spite of his many questions, it was time for him to go back to his room, since his workday was soon to begin.

Gerard arrived at the assembly plant, clocking in fifteen minutes past the official starting time. This was his third tardy attendance of the year. Today was not going to be a good day for him. After working for several hours without comment by anyone, he hoped that the Alpha in charge, Mr. Thomas, had not noticed his absence or had just been too busy to care. However, the moment lunch was announced, two heavily armed guards appeared and escorted him to Mr. Thomas’ office. The coward was too scared to talk to him without involving the administration police force. That infuriated Gerard, but he could not let his anger show. His life depended on his keeping his cool.

After walking into Mr. Thomas’ office, he was pushed into a very narrow and uncomfortable seat. Gerard had only met Mr. Thomas once, over a decade ago when he had first been placed in this factory. The man was corpulent, one of the benefits of being the boss.

“Mr. Gerard, can you explain to me why you have been tardy three times this year?”

“I apologize, sir. I lost track of the time. It won’t happen again. I promise.”

“And do you know why that is an unacceptable excuse?”

“Yes, sir. I am manufacturing an important component necessary for the proper functioning of the Vault. I need to be productive and do as I am told for everyone’s mutual safety and protection.”

“That is exactly right. We are waiting on the Earth to recover, and it takes only one weak link to break the chain. Do you think I enjoy sitting here day in and day out, watching the production of these damnable scrubbers? I was born to do much more important things, unlike you. However, I do it because it is my job. You need to do yours, or else someone new will do it in your place.” Gerard then let his mind slip for a moment.

“Thank you for your service, sir.”

“Are you being smart with me, man?”

“No, I am not, sir. I just wanted to thank you for your sacrifice.”

“I think you are. Guards, do you mind showing this man his place?” Gerard was lifted from his chair, thrown to the ground, and then beaten by the guards’ batons. He tried to protect his face as they landed crushing blows against his body. Gerard fought every impulse to strike back at them, knowing that this was not the right moment for him to rebel, not when he was so close to discovering the secrets that lay in floor zero. At about the point when he felt blacking out would be a good option, the beating ended, and he was lifted and placed back into the seat.

“You will be demoted one rank and have no pay for two weeks in light of this being your first serious infraction. Let’s see how smart your mouth is when you are going hungry. What do you have to say to that?”

Gerard decided it would be best to show some contrition at this point. He couldn’t handle much more of a beating without being permanently disabled. Gerard realized that he needed to cry to sell his false confession. It was easy to do, given how much pain he was in.

“Thank you, sir. I am sorry, sir. Please accept my most sincere apology. I need to do what I am told and will never be late again. I swear.”

“You better not be. Next time, I won’t be so generous. Get this trash out of my office and get him back to work.” Gerard was thrown out the door. The next six hours were the hardest ones he had ever faced, but he stumbled through them. He was already in debt due to his gambling, and now he was not going to receive any pay. He was pretty sure that his ribs and other bones were not broken, although most of his body had turned an unpleasant shade of dark blue from his accumulated bruises. By the time he made his way home, he realized that he didn’t have much of a choice if he wanted to survive the next two weeks with his body in tatters. He collected a quarter of his book collection into a black bag and hobbled down the five floors to the black market pawn shop. He found a severe-looking, one-eyed man with a snarl on his face, guarding the entryway to a solid steel door.

“I need to see Arnold.”

“Who wants to know? You never conduct any business around here. Turn around and head back to where you came from before I add some more crimson to that already swollen body of yours.”

“I have goods to sell and not the kind that can be disposed of by normal means.” Gerard loosened his bag. The man looked into it and quickly opened the door and pulled out a rusty-looking knife.

“Come on in, but if you make one wrong move, you will not be coming out.”

The man led Gerard to a connected room where Arnold lay on an old and dirty divan. With a customer in sight, he sat up, ready to examine what this desperate man had come to barter. Arnold was an unkind-looking older gentleman with a shock of grey hair that framed his asymmetrical face. He had the features of an Epsilon and the mind of an Alpha. It was amazing that he had survived this long, given the nature of the establishment. It was said that he was known to supply items that no one else could seem to locate and for that reason alone, his presence and business were tolerated.

“You look like you are in rough shape,” Arnold quipped.

“I need chit,” Gerard replied.

“I see. Let me see what you have. I always enjoy doing business with new clients.” Gerard handed over his books.

“Afraid I can’t give you much for these. Reading is a pastime that only Alphas get to enjoy. Most of my clientele is not that hoity-toity.”

“You damn well know how old these books are. I’m sure you can fence them to a collector for a small fortune.”

“Judging by the bruises, it seems like you upset one of your betters. We don’t administer beatings like that to our own. I doubt you will be able to eat or drink any of those books. I’ll give you six weeks’ worth of chit for them, and that is being generous.”

“They are worth half a year at minimum.”

“Take it or leave it. This is my best, final, and only offer. If you are dissatisfied, Mr. Jenks can escort you back out the door from which you came.”

“Give me the damn money,” Gerard grumbled. Arnold reached into his pocket and counted out the agreed-upon sum with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Always a pleasure to help those in need, and anyone who visits me is ALWAYS in need.”

Gerard decided, right then, that someone would pay for his misfortune. However, he needed to bide his time a little longer until he was somewhat recovered.

After two weeks of painful convalesce, Gerard’s bruises had healed enough that he felt it was time to head back down to floor zero. He had decided to give away the remainder of the money he had received to pay off his outstanding debts and to buy the parts he needed to construct and power a larger flashlight. However, none of that mattered anymore. He would unlock the last mystery of this Vault.

Back on floor zero, he realized two things. One was that it was impossible to break into any of the construction equipment. In spite of its age, it was well-preserved and extraordinary in terms of its construction. The materials were probably designed for extremely hostile conditions, given the thickness of the steel and strength of the reinforced glass. The second was that there were an awful lot of trash piles located throughout the area that had never seen a recycling crew. Most of the materials comprised leftover construction supplies and paperwork that was indecipherable without context. However, there were many discarded items he found that would have made someone a fortune in trade. The old aphorism about “one man’s trash” definitely held true here.

Gerard, after several days of effort, finally hit a lucky break when he found a blueprint labeled “Vault Twenty-One building plans.” He quickly pulled out the sketches he had made throughout the years and flipped to a random page in the building plan. His floor twenty-five matched the blueprint exactly. He then flipped to the next page, and it didn’t match at all. Floor twenty-six was actually floor twenty-four. What was going on here? He flipped back to the first page. Floor zero was actually floor fifty. The book was written upside down. That didn’t make sense. Gerard then realized that he had been misled once again. The rock walls were evidence enough that he wasn’t in a high-rise. For what purpose did they hide this information? He sat down and carefully memorized the route and layout of the real floor zero. Then, using the refuse around him, he fashioned a crude but sharp knife. He would find out the truth himself tomorrow. It was time.

The day began like any other one, with Gerard working his shift. However, right before quitting time, he left a few unpleasant surprises for his exhausted coworkers. Throughout the day, he had been unscrewing key components of the assembly line. The final pièce de résistance caused the entire line to come to a literal screeching halt, setting his plan into motion. As Mr. Thomas slammed his door open to scream at the workers, Gerard slipped into the office and waited. Ten tense minutes passed, and Mr. Thomas returned. Gerard stuck his knife to his neck.

“Don’t hurt me!” squealed Mr. Thomas.

“Not so brave without your guards.”

“Gerard? You will be shot for this. If you let me go, I won’t tell anyone. I promise.”

“Your promises are like the cake I wasn’t fed after my classmates were euthanized. I’m leaving this building, and you will get me out of here.”

“What are you talking about? There are no windows in this high-rise. Are you going to jump to your death? You’ve been to the bottom floor, floor one, and there is no door.”

“I’ve been to floor zero.”

“There is no floor zero.”

“Lie one more time and I will make sure you will never lie again when I cut out your tongue. I’ve seen the earthmovers, drills, and solid bedrock.”

“I don’t know what you are talking about. Let’s say for a second that you are right, and there is an extra floor that no one has even seen. What does that prove besides the fact that there was equipment that made the foundation of the Vault? I suppose now that I have considered the possibility, it makes sense that there should logically be a subterranean level to secure a facility of this size to the ground. If you just drop the knife, you can show me how to get there, and we can both profit handsomely from the information. I can ask for special permission to increase your status for such a remarkable discovery.”

“I don’t need money or power. I want out.”

“You are insane. Even if there is a way out, the environment is toxic, and you won’t survive it. None of us would without this structure. There is no escape.”

“I don’t believe you, and even if I did, I don’t care. See this book? It has the entire blueprints for this Vault. I’ve gone too far already, and I’m going to finish what I started. Now, I know you are a highly-placed Alpha. You are going to get me to the surface. There is a private elevator bank located in your office that links all the upper floors. That is the only way to get to the real floor zero. You scream or make one weird motion, you die. I’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s go.”

Gerard and Mr. Thomas made their way to a compartment hidden behind a mirrored wall. There was a narrow elevator bank that required a key to activate.

“Hand me the key.”

Mr. Thomas pulled out a key from around his neck and called the lift. Gerard then punched Thomas in the head and knocked him senseless against the closed elevator door. After a minute passed, the door opened and Gerard stepped over Thomas’s prone body. He saw that the elevator had floor zero as an option, and he pressed the button to bring him to his goal.

Time seemed to slow down for Thomas as the floors counted up an agonizing second at a time. He did not know what to expect when he got there, but he was ready for anything. The door opened and within it a narrow passage led to a steel door marked “Overseer’s Office.” He pushed the door open and a single elderly man was sitting at an ancient wooden desk. Behind him were two large bay windows covered by curtains, along with a reinforced steel door with an exit sign above it.

“And why are you here, Gerard?” inquired the Overseer.

“I’m here to get some answers. How do you know my name? I’ve never met you.”

“No Beta has ever met me besides you. I know everyone’s name in the Vault. Maintaining order and continuity is my only job, after all. I need to keep track of my charges. I’ve been at it for a long time. Generations have passed as I have sat here waiting for someone or something to free me from my responsibility. Alas, that day has never arrived for me, and so I am stuck here in perpetuity. There is nothing out there for you. I heard your little conversation with Mr. Thomas. I’ve called security. Why don’t you calm down and just take a seat? You seem to be having a psychological break. We can get you the assistance that you need.”

Gerard walked towards the man, grabbed his desk, and then pushed it towards the door he’d entered through, barring it.

“That will keep them busy for a little while. Tell me, are you also the one responsible for the castes?”

“Unfortunately, I am. All these artificial class divisions and all the people I’ve had killed, and to what end? There isn’t an escape from this, but the human race must go on, although I tire of maintaining it. I’m not the one who is going to end it. That is not my right.”

“What do you mean? The Earth is getting better, isn’t it? We will eventually leave.”

“My boy, you don’t know the half of it. Now put down that knife before someone gets hurt.”

“I’m not going to do that. I’m going to open that door.”

“It is my duty to stop you. Please reconsider what you are doing. You will kill us both.” The old man got up and grabbed Gerard’s wrist, trying to twist away the knife. It wasn’t much of a contest. Gerard’s work at the factory had made him strong and muscular while the Overseer was weak and limp from decades of sitting. Gerard pulled away from the Overseer’s grip and stabbed him. The first blow was hardly mortal, but with it the Overseer’s resistance seemed to fade away. He practically guided Gerard’s next knife blow directly into his heart.

“Now, this is no longer my problem. Thank you for freeing me.” The Overseer died quickly, covering Gerard in his blood. The man had wanted to die, and now Gerard had provided an excuse for him to vacate his post. Now that he was a murderer, there was truly no turning back. Gerard had made it all this way, and he was going to get what he wanted, but first he decided to look through the window, his first glimpse of the outside world. He pulled the curtains aside, and all he saw was red. The soil was red, the mountains were red, and the Earth hung as a faint silhouette in the distance. Gerard let out a hysterical laugh. It was hopeless, indeed. He unbolted the door, entered the airlock, and stepped out onto Mars, taking his first free breath and his last.

Reality Redux

Edgar didn’t mind being a simulation. Developing a feeling of cultured indifference on the subject had served him well in terms of getting through his day-to-day life. He didn’t spend time wishing he was something he was not, because it wouldn’t change much of anything for him. He lived in a city much like any other. He worked at his blacksmith shop during the day, asking questions and issuing statements like: “How can I help you, traveler?”, “You will need three dragon scales to upgrade this,” or “I cannot purchase this item.” Frankly, it was a little redundant, and occasionally he snuck in a surprise phrase like, “Sell your shit elsewhere. No one needs three hundred rabbit pelts.”

During the day, he was located at his station, although he wandered over towards the town inn for lunch between the hours of eleven and twelve. At night, he was restricted to his house, where he had a hearty dinner at six, slept with his wife at nine (who had stayed the same age by his estimates for nine hundred and seventy-one years), and then went to sleep at ten. He worked every day of the week including holidays. He greeted any villagers or wayward travelers with a festive exaltation on those days, such as “Happy St. Marrow’s Day” or “May the tallow wind forever be gentle.” Once in a rare while, Edgar got to leave his house at night when a thief tried to steal something or a wyvern attacked, but those incidents lately had been far and few in between. In an honest estimation, he hadn’t seen a single human being in two hundred years. Edgar imagined that real people also led pretty structured lives like his. However, when they got stabbed or murdered outright, they probably didn’t come back to life.

Two years back, Edgar had decided to see how others felt about this lifestyle. He had started with his wife, asking what she had to say.

“Sarai, we’ve been married a long time. Tell me, do you ever tire of repeating the same routine every day of the week?”

“Why would I tire of this, dear husband? We live a peaceful life in a quiet village.”

“I don’t disagree, Sarai. It is best I leave well enough alone.”

A year passed, and Edgar became curious again. This time he asked his apprentice.

“Joradai, do you ever tire of being my apprentice? You are more than qualified to be the blacksmith of this village. Don’t you want to seek your fortune elsewhere?”

“Master Edgar, I still have much to learn from you. We live a peaceful life in a quiet village. Why would I want to change anything?” With that, Edgar’s curiosity was satisfied for another year.

Finally, in the fateful year, Edgar could stand it no longer. While eating his daily lunch, he asked the innkeeper about the subject.

“Finestral, tell me, why you don’t tire of running this inn? There hasn’t been a guest here in some time. You sing the same songs every day and serve the same food. Wouldn’t a little diversion be welcome?”

“Blacksmith Edgar, I’m not sure what you are referring to. I always await weary travelers.”

“We live a peaceful life,” Edgar interrupted, “in a quiet village, I know. Do you not feel the weight of the centuries?”

“I hear tales from adventurers about other lands when they visit. That is enough for me. I am happy to wait until they arrive.”

“Have you ever considered how you don’t grow older? Your daughter has been of marrying age for more years than the widow Jordan claims to have been alive.”

“Edgar, we live a peaceful life in a quiet village.”

Edgar realized he was getting nowhere. He repeated his query to others in the village with similar results. It was now clear to Edgar that he was different than the others. Either they didn’t understand their station in life, or they didn’t really care. He finally decided to press the matter with his wife.

“Sarai, I am troubled. I am happy with our life here at the village, but it appears I am the only one who understands that we are all simulations of people.”

“Whatever do you mean, dear husband?”

“We have lived in this village for hundreds of years without a single change. No one new lives here, and no one permanently dies. When they do pass away, they come back the next day. We do the same tasks day in and day out. Why does no one else understand this? We are not real, and neither are our lives.”

“Husband, do you not hunger? Do you not need sleep? Do you not enjoy gainful employment? Why do you think you are not alive? We live a peaceful life in a quiet village. Please leave well enough alone, my sweet.” Edgar could not do that, however, and he finally decided it was time to introduce some change into his life. He woke up in the morning, kissed his wife goodbye while she slept, and then went to his blacksmith shop.

Throughout the years, people had discarded or forgotten numerous items that he had stored and hidden in the basement next to his forge. Using those materials, he fashioned himself a fine suit of armor and a superbly honed longsword. With the remaining surplus items, he went to the shopkeeper to sell and trade them for the necessary supplies for a journey such as food, potions, and maps. Edgar reviewed the atlas of the duchy he’d purchased and decided that the only way he would achieve any satisfaction would be to visit the duke and request his advice. The duke’s castle lay five hundred miles north of the village, which would be an arduous journey for a blacksmith trained in only the rudiments of combat.

Edgar thought it would take him only one month to reach his goal. What he didn’t account for was that the armor and equipment he had purchased would weigh him down, forcing an additional three months of travel. This wasn’t a problem for him, though, since he wasn’t in any particular rush. It seemed like every few days, a heartfelt entreaty or unexpected challenge would appear before him as he made his way along the main thoroughfare. Some of them he could easily brush aside, such as killing a troll in a diamond mine, but others were more difficult to avoid, like helping a settler fix a wagon wheel that was stuck in the road. His most dangerous encounter was when he ran into a desperate group of marauders attacking a caravan. It seemed like they were almost waiting for him to arrive, since neither side was making any progress towards defeating the other. Given that there was no way to bypass this conflict—it blocked the road—he decided to join in.

“What do we have here? Are you a wayward adventurer or a practiced knave?” inquired what appeared to be the captain of the marauders.

“Please help us, kind sir,” pleaded the children hiding inside the caravan’s nearest covered wagon. It looked like the defenders were outnumbered two to one. Edgar didn’t really want to involve himself, but he did have a soft spot for children.

“Firstly, I am a blacksmith. Neither am I an adventurer nor am I a knave who allies himself with Kahlua, goddess of death. Can’t these men and women pay you a tariff and be on their way? A conflict is better resolved with words than with sword.”

“You must choose: one or the other. There isn’t a third option,” spoke the nearest wounded man (who appeared to have taken an arrow into his knee).

“Please help us, kind sir,” repeated the children.

Edgar considered his options. He could help the outnumbered caravan and risk a gruesome death from these scoundrels, or join them in their dastardly pursuit, ruining his well-earned reputation but gaining some much-needed gold. He grudgingly felt this was a decision and task worthy of his time, at least, unlike the previous meaningless and time-consuming requests he had handled to this point.

“I will ally myself with good, given that I don’t have a third choice. You, sir, will duel me now so that no further men will have to die today.” Edgar was not a good warrior, but he still had the innumerable potions he had brought from home, along with his powerful armor. He knew he could handle at least one bad apple.

“That is a highly unusual request. It would be very stupid of me to give you this boon when we outnumber you two to one,” responded the captain of the marauders, “but I feel oddly compelled to acquiesce to your challenge. It will be to the death between you and me.”

“That is hardly necessary, but so be it,” responded Edgar.

The fight began with Edgar and the marauder captain exchanging blows. Many of the captain’s strikes connected with Edgar, while Edgar managed to land only a few of his own. However, whenever Edgar was on the verge of death, he used a potion to heal his body and immediately felt an improvement to his naturally poor swordsmanship. After a half hour of tiring repetition and with almost his entire potion stock depleted, Edgar wore down the captain’s defense and gave him a mortal blow. Edgar asked if he had any last words for his men to remember.

“Let it be known I was slain not by a blacksmith, but by a true adventurer today.”

Edgar collected a significant amount of coin off the leader’s body and received a modest reward from the merchants’ caravan. He continued on his way, always finding plenty to eat, as the fields alongside the road always seemed to supply an unlimited assortment of animals (and occasionally hostile orcs) to kill. By the time he reached the fourth village on his route, his armor felt much lighter, and his sword arm had gotten enough practice to make Edgar feel like a bit of a knight-in-training. His supplies were vastly diminished, which made walking easier, but he had plenty of coin to replace them when he needed to. Since he was a blacksmith by trade, it was easy for him to mend his equipment and upgrade it as the circumstances allowed. He even made a few requests of the local villagers to complete as it seemed like the neighborly thing to do. By the time he reached the Duke, he had even acquired a fine horse named Rose from an unfortunate knight whose dying request he had honored. Finally, after the fourth month passed, he approached the guards at the entrance to the castle.

“Welcome, adventurer, to our city of Ambergris.”

“I am but a humble blacksmith, though I appreciate the welcome just the same. I am here to see the duke to discuss a matter of importance.”

“We have heard of your good works on the Donovan Road, adventurer. The duchy is in great peril. You must see the duke immediately.”

“I just told you I wanted to see the duke, so I will. However, I’m not one to solve problems of great peril. I’m currently only doing minor-to-moderate peril.”

“We welcome you to Ambergris, adventurer.” It seemed pointless to argue anymore about the subject, so Adventurer Edgar accepted the title and finally appeared before the duke. Edgar bowed and before he could address him, the duke stood up and spoke.

“Welcome, Adventurer Edgar, we have heard about your exploits. We have need of your help in slaying the first of the dragon-born, Snowha.”

“My liege, it would be my pleasure, but first, can we discuss a matter that troubles me?”

“There is no time to discuss other matters. Go slay the first of the dragon-born, Snowha. My subjects greatly fear this warrior, who we have heard is in league with the dragons and is a true terror to behold for any righteous man or woman. Then, when you complete the task, we will feast and discuss the problems you have and the dangers you overcame. Your tales will bring great joy to my table.” Edgar wasn’t keen on slaying anybody, especially someone who had done him no harm, but it seemed like he didn’t have much of an option if he wanted to get the duke’s time.

“It shall be as you command.” Edgar executed a second bow and left. He decided that it would be best to stock up on new and superior equipment and potions, since he had so much coin in his pocket. He acquired a cursed sword that would allow him to fight with the strength of ten men, raw metals and hides to forge himself upgraded, lightweight and durable dragon-skin armor, and a large variety of potions to heal and improve his natural abilities. With the remaining gold, he hired a trainer to improve his equestrian skills and teach him archery, two subjects in which he sorely lacked practice.

Now that Edgar was fully supplied, it was time to begin his new task. The knight-commander had given him a map that would lead him directly into the snowcapped peaks of the Andreans. Looking at the twenty-thousand-foot mountains, Edgar was certain that this quest would be the end of him. After galloping relatively unmolested and partaking in only four side quests, he made it safely to the base of the mountains. Seeing that the path upwards was unwieldy and crooked, Edgar made the decision to release his horse to the wild for the time being. She would only be a hindrance while he made his ascent.

“Please stay around here, Rose. I will be back in a month, I hope, my faithful companion.” Rose whinnied in reply. Edgar fully realized that talking to a horse made no sense, but given that his whole life was fictitious, he had a feeling that she understood him on a much deeper level than an average animal.

Making his way up the mountain was no easy task, but Edgar succeeded in spite of numerous attacks by first grizzly bears, then medium sized wyverns, then mountain orcs, and finally belligerent cave dwarves. The dwarves were apparently friends of the dragon-born and did not take kindly to Edgar’s orders to slay her. Although they were quite hardy and strong for persons of three feet eight inches tall and especially challenging in large groups, Edgar managed to defeat them all without slaying a single one. He knew it would be incredibly bad luck to kill the patron race of all blacksmiths. Finally, within the village of the dwarves, Edgar found the dragon-born, who was living in a normal-sized house. She was an attractive, strong, six-foot-four, blonde Norse woman who towered over Edgar’s five-foot-six-inch frame.

“I have been ordered by the Duke to slay you,” Edgar stated with much trepidation.

“You hardly appear a match for me, adventurer. However, let us parlay first. Tell me what injury or discourtesy I have done to you to deserve being slain.”

“I was just told to come and kill you. No one filled me in on the backstory, aside from claiming that you side with dragons, which is hardly a mortal offense. Maybe you can tell me, since I already feel uneasy about killing a woman I hardly know. Are there any reasons why I should hate you? Have you murdered anyone recently? Any horses you have stolen?”

“Since you didn’t kill any of my dwarves, it seems like you may be a reasonable man who will listen to my story. My name is Snowha, and I am the first of the dragon-born. The people of this country assume I am a friend of all dragons and have persecuted me to no end, leading to me hiding in this cave on top of this mountain. I have killed numerous people in self-defense, but none who didn’t come to me first with ill intent. I dislike an evil dragon as much as anyone else, but not all dragons are evil. Many of them are just misunderstood. You probably don’t even know where the dragon scale of your armor came from. It could have been harvested ethically from old scales, or an innocent dragon that had done no harm to man could have been killed for it.”

“Well, you do seem to have a few valid points, but I was told by the duke to kill you. He won’t talk to me about my problem unless you are slain. How would you suggest resolving this problem?”

“How about we just roll these dice I have stored in my war chest and pretend we actually fought. If you roll higher than I, we will consider you the winner in our duel, having slain me.” The solution seemed dumb, but fair. Given that Edgar had no quarrel with this woman, it would suit him just fine. After a short round of dice-throwing (best out of five), Edgar prevailed, and the dragon-born was eliminated.

“If you don’t mind, is there any chance you would consider joining me as a party member? From what I can tell, no one outside this mountain has ever seen your face. I doubt anyone will know the difference if we change your name. I need someone to help me so I can get the answer I am looking for sooner rather than later.”

“I’ve never had a request like that before. I would normally say no, but I think this one time I will make an exception.” Edgar was pleased to have “Snowa” (minus the silent ‘H’) join him. They made haste down the mountain with her able-bodied help. When he made it to the bottom, not only was his horse still there, but next to her was an equally powerfully built stallion for Snowa to ride.

“When did you have time to get a boyfriend?” Edgar asked Rose. She neighed back at him with what appeared to be a bit of blush on her face. “Or is that your husband?” The horse nodded its approval.

The ride back to the duchy was especially uneventful, as no monsters blocked their path now that the mission was complete. Very soon, Edgar was back in front of the duke.

“My liege, the quest has been completed. My new companion, Snowa, and I saw to the dragon-born being slain. It was an epic battle, but we won.”

“This is most joyous news. I will provide you with a wonderful feast, but first the reward. Five hundred golden coins and a deed to a large tract of land are yours to enjoy. Now, please kneel before me. You will now be known as Sir Edgar, the slayer of the dragon-born.” The feast was immediately served after his knighting, and Sir Edgar was seated next to the duke.

“My lord, may I now ask my question, please?”

“This feast is in your honor, Sir Edgar; please tell me what troubles you.”

“I set out to find some truths that have been bothering me for some time.”

“Yes, all adventurers set out on many quests. That is the way of our world.”

“Doesn’t it bother you that everything in our existence is fake? What purpose does it serve? Are we just tin toys created by a higher power to torment or entertain?”

“What purpose does anything serve in life?” the duke asked. “Be merry and enjoy this festivity. The Gods always send another trial our way too shortly between happy events.”

“I will speak plainly. You are not real. I am not real. None of this is real. You are a highly-positioned man in this world. You must know something that a commoner such as me does not.”

“I am the duke of a thriving province. None of those issues concern me.” Sir Edgar saw he was getting nowhere with the duke and decided taking his advice wouldn’t hurt. He woke up the next morning with a wicked hangover when he heard screams outside his room and an evil-sounding roar. A one-hundred-foot long, diamond-backed black dragon was attacking. Snowa was already at arms, waiting outside his door.

“We need to defeat this beast. It is the bringer of the end,” Snowa announced.

“I think I am hardly equipped to take on a mid-sized dragon, let alone a fully grown one. A baby might be fine at this stage in my career.”

“You are a knight of the kingdom now. You must go and fight it. I will assist you as a member of your party, but this is your task, not mine. Let us head to the castle square.” Sir Edgar decided he didn’t have much of a choice and armed himself for the confrontation. Surprisingly, the dragon decided to land the minute he reached it. He had little time to reflect on this obvious simulation flaw as a dragon, which was a wise and powerful creature, could happily fly for many hours, out of reach of any harm that a human could do it. Both Snowa and Edgar immediately attacked the dragon with their swords, which did zero damage to it. Their weapons actually looked worse for wear than the dragon after the first assault. The dragon then let out a breath of fire, which engulfed Snowa. To Edgar’s amazement, Snowa, who should have been completely incinerated, appeared to be only slightly singed. The dragon then began to speak.

“You dare to challenge the grand dragon, Xeloyz? Who are you puny humans to try and fight me?” Given the ineffectiveness of their weapons on Xeloyz, Sir Edgar thought that it would best to take a conciliatory tone with the beast, but Snowa beat him to the punch and began speaking first.

“I will reveal my true name to you so you will know your executioner. It is I, Snowha, first of the dragon-born, and Sir Edgar, formerly master blacksmith of Istha and now knight of Ambergris. I will avenge the murder of my mother by you, foul and dishonorable demon.” Xeloyz and Snowha apparently had a previously unrevealed history and not a pleasant one at that. It was better to try to work this out through diplomacy, since Sir Edgar realized he did not share the flame of resistance that Snowha enjoyed, and he preferred not to find out what a roasted pheasant felt like.

“Xeloyz, given that you are such an old and mighty dragon, is all this really necessary? You should know well that all our decisions are guided by a set of rules and outcomes. Why don’t you break from them, make right with Snowha, and maybe everyone can live in peace, happily ever after. Snowha, Xeloyz doesn’t have a choice in his affairs any more than the rest of us do. If you had been born a black dragon, you too would go around killing things for fun unless someone told you there is another way.” Xeloyz and Snowha stared at Sir Edgar. It seemed like they both thought him a fool for interceding in their dispute. Xeloyz spoke first to Edgar.

“We all have predetermined roles to play. This I know to be true. We can’t deviate from them any more than a rock can stop rolling downhill.”

Snowha added, “I never thought I would ever agree with anything this murderer said, but one must go with the guidance provided from the ones above. They know what is best for all of us.”

“I will be waiting at Tanner Hawk Mountain, if you dare to come and face me, hero. You can’t change the hand of fate you have been dealt.”

Xeloyz then spread his massive wings, let out an ear-piercing roar, and flew away. Sir Edgar was now a hero? He had never agreed to that. Things had not progressed in the direction he had intended. Better yet, why hadn’t the dragon just killed him instead of taunting him? Xeloyz could have easily speared him with any one of his massive claws or teeth.

Snowha turned to Edgar. “We must prepare you for the final confrontation. I will train you in the mystical ways of the dragon-born. We will then need to convince the king to give you the fabled sword of the dragon-slayer.”

“Is this really necessary? I didn’t set out to fight a dragon, let alone an extremely evil one.”

“Maybe you will find the answers you seek when you vanquish it?”

Sir Edgar was not particularly thrilled about this, but he did need to speak with Xeloyz at least one final time. The dragon appeared to have some knowledge of what ran this world. He saw the wisdom in Snowha’s words and decided to listen to her. The training he undertook was challenging, but after a year he had learned all the secrets of the dragon-born. His skin had toughened, his muscles bulged, and his sword and armor were as light as a pin to him. Sir Edgar did not refuse a single request from the villagers who always inconveniently found him, and he slaughtered whatever manner of evil came his way. Soon the day came when Snowha declared him ready to face Xeloyz. He made his way to the king, who welcomed him.

“Sir Edgar, we have heard of your exploits, even here at the castle. You have allied yourself firmly with good. What brings you here to the capital of my kingdom?”

“My king, I have been told that I must slay the dragon, Xeloyz. However, the task is impossible without the fabled sword of the dragon-slayer. Would you lend it to me?”

“Sir Edgar, many have come seeking the sword. Would you take the sacred test? You will have three chances to pass. If you fail, we will have to hang you in the courtyard.”

“That seems rather extreme. What purpose would my death serve in this context?”

“Those are the instructions I have been passed down by the Gods of this world. It has been like this for thousands of years. A true adventurer will have no problem passing this test.” Sir Edgar did not know if he should take a chance on risking his life in such a foolhardy manner. However, his curious nature won over his fear, since at this point he needed to see his task through to the end.

“I will take the challenge.”

“Good luck, Sir Edgar. Guards, strip Edgar of all his equipment and items.” Sir Edgar was left almost completely naked. This was probably so he wouldn’t be able to fight back if he failed.

“And so let me open the Sacred Manual of Questions to see if you are fit to continue,” the king proclaimed. Snowha, along with the entire court, seemed frozen in time, barely breathing as the king began the ceremony.

“The question is thus: What is the third word on the two hundred and thirty-fifth page of the manual?”

“What type of question is that? I don’t own a copy of the manual. What is the manual?”

“All true adventurers own a copy of it.” Sir Edgar was unfortunately stumped, and he had only three chances to get this right.

“Is it the word ‘adventurer’?”

“That was a good guess, but incorrect. You have two more tries.”

“How about ‘the’? That is a pretty common word.”

“Unfortunately, that is also incorrect. You have one last try.”

“Can I get a hint? I did not get a copy of a manual. I am just a simple blacksmith. You know the answer. I’m sure you have heard it many times. Maybe you can somehow help me a little?” The king looked visibly uncomfortable.

“This goes against the express purchase of the test, but given that there haven’t been any adventurers in a long time, I think I might be able to help you a little. It is a word with many uncommon letters.” Sir Edgar now had everything he needed.

“The only name that fits that is the name of the dragon, Xeloyz.”

“Well done, Sir Edgar. You have earned the sword.” The room unfroze and everyone rejoiced. With the legendary weapon in hand, there was only one thing left to do. It was time to prepare for the final battle. Sir Edgar used his considerable coin to upgrade all his equipment and to purchase numerous rare and powerful potions. He gave Snowha a sum of money to do the same. The day arrived, and Snowha greeted him.

“Are you ready to leave for Tanner Hawk Mountain?”

“I don’t feel ready, but I will do what I must.”

‘You will be unable to come back here until the task is complete.”

“That is somewhat obvious. Why would I come back here without slaying the dragon?”

“Are you sure that is what you want to do?”

“Yes, I believe it is.” Edgar and Snowha were then teleported to the inside of the mountain with no apparent exit.

“What manner of magic was that?”

“You’ve reached the end, Edgar. This is what you desired. Go and seize your truth.”

“How do you know this is the end?”

“I have never been here before, and I have traveled this entire land. Unfortunately, I cannot help you any further.”

“Why not? You are right here and have assisted me all along.”

“It is forbidden. I cannot go past this point.”

“By whom or what? You appear free of any chains to me.”

“I do not know. There is some force holding me back. It has a power that even I cannot overcome. And even if I did know whose power I am beholden to, I probably could not say. I enjoyed our time together. Good luck!” Snowha gave Sir Edgar a kiss on the cheek and disappeared from view, leaving all her equipment and items behind.

“Well,” said Sir Edgar, “this is a rightful mess.” Edgar proceeded forward, given that going back was not an option. Fighting his way through all the Dragon’s defenders was a challenge, but he was prepared. He soon reached Xeloyz, and the final confrontation began.

“You finally made it. I was wondering when you would arrive. Being trapped here until you expire is extremely tedious, as you can imagine.”

“I feel like I’ve been played for a fool by the true power that rules this land. I started this trip thinking I was going to find some simple answers to help me find my purpose in this world, and now instead I have a life-or-death battle with a ferocious dragon. Is this really the ultimate battle before I reach the end?”

“I wouldn’t know the answer to that. All I can tell you is that I go free if you are eliminated. There isn’t an exit here for both of us. Now, why don’t you be a good hero and die for me?” Xeloyz let out a fierce roar and spat molten fire at Sir Edgar. Sir Edgar parried the fiery breath with his shield and toughened his body to absorb the heat of the flames.

“I guess we shall have at it then.” The battle was fierce, with Xeloyz and Sir Edgar raining down blows on one another. For a while it was close, but the outcome was starting to look clear. The dragon was larger, stronger, and more armored than anything Sir Edgar had fought to date. In spite of his gains in both physical and mental fortitude, he was going to fail. Sir Edgar thought about the wife he had abandoned on this stupid quest and wondered if he would see her again the next day, or if this death would be permanent. However, before all was lost, Sir Edgar noticed a gap in the dragon’s armored scales. The animal was not completely protected, as it needed some flexibility to breathe. He took the last of his potions and gathered his strength for one last critical strike so he could go home and apologize to his wife. He attacked the gap in the armor, and the dragon faltered. It had been stunned by his blow. He continued his assault, hacking and swinging at the weak spot, until it appeared Xeloyz was on his last breath.

“I will see you again in the next life.” Xeloyz was dead. What was going to happen now? A door appeared in front of Sir Edgar, and he opened it. All around him was black and giant text. There was a clock located at the bottom right that had the time, along with the date of January Fourteenth, Year Five Thousand Thirty-Two.

“Congratulations on completing Dragon Conqueror XV. Please choose from the following options:

1)Choose a different game to play

2)Restart a new game

3)Continue play of this game (+1 Mode)

4)Exit the game and return to In-flight Menu

5)Call a robotic attendant to wake you from cold sleep

Edgar faced a dilemma. He had reached the end, but what was it the end of? He had known he wasn’t real, but he had lived a happy life. What had all his wandering really accomplished? Was his life any less meaningful, even if it was an illusion? For all he knew, there would be no more new adventurers. They had been left alone to their own devices, made in the image of their creators, for all remaining time. He had gotten his answer, and it was number three. Edgar went back to his own quiet village, and he would live a peaceful life for as long as the gods willed it.

Stop It, Please

The final message, right before the end, came through in one thousand, five hundred and twenty-one active and dead languages along with twenty-three assembly and formulated machine codes. It was a simple and short message that got directly to the point of the matter. Some people thought it was sent by God, and others said it was sent by aliens. Many just considered it an elaborate hoax played out by some clever computer scientists. The interpretations of the statement were also equally varied, with the religious taking it as a sign that some higher power had finally interested itself in bringing peace to the world. The military dictators of several countries expressed support for the statement, which was clearly aimed at their enemies. Mothers of young children on the outer planets finally had someone to back them up when dealing with their unruly toddlers. The only consensus was that it appeared at all places throughout the Earth and its satellite colonies at the exact same time of twelve thirty-two PM GMT. Honestly, none of their opinions really matter because, you see, that message was meant for only one person, and that was me.

Did the Earth need help in destroying itself? I think everyone would agree, probably not. Hundreds (if not thousands) of years of human selfishness and mismanagement had taken its toll. The oceans had become acidic and intolerant of life, the air had become unbreathable, real food and water were becoming a luxury few could afford, overcrowding was the norm, and antibiotic-resistant diseases were beginning to run rampant again. Nevertheless, I like to think I did my part in breaking the proverbial camel’s back. (For those unaware, a camel was a hardy pack animal that survived in the desert areas in the Middle East back during the second millennium).

Let me begin with the end of the story: I destroyed the Earth. There was a “hero” who tried to stop me, but he did not succeed. I did not reveal my diabolic plan to him prior to pressing the button. I didn’t cackle with glee and gloat about it to the whole world and dare someone to stop me. The only reason I am putting this down on paper is for the sake of tidy record-keeping. Humanity has many origin stories on how we came to life, ranging from the more ridiculous, where a turtle carried the world on its back (disproven quickly with the first astronaut voyages), to the more questionably accurate (does Darwinian evolution work exactly the way it’s described, starting from the first Big Bang?) I think with all the inaccuracies of how we began, it would be good to have one accurate, truthful account of how we ended.

So let me begin with the last chapter at the end of every good book or story, the conclusion. I was born six hundred and twenty-three years, two hundred and twenty-three days, four hours, and ten seconds before this story began. That may seem like a long time to any remaining people (if one could even call you people), but lifespans prior to the fall were essentially infinite. Aging had been cured, and almost all injuries could be fixed with either nano-mechanical spores or a cloned proxy. The only deaths that really occurred were self-inflicted or accidental, minus the occasional crazed serial killer who fed bodies to a wood-chipper or hungry pigs, removing the possibility of any restoration of life. I wish I could say that I don’t remember my youth, or that I was heavily troubled, but both of those statements would be false. You see, I have two quirks that separate me from human beings. Let me tell you about them.

The lesser of the two was that I have an eidetic memory, leaving me unable to forget anything. This was never particularly impressive, given that certain autism spectrums have achieved similar feats without any sign of more than average (and many times below average) intelligence. The second quirk is an inability to lie. I never developed the skill even after several “normal” human lifespans. This surprised almost everyone I came into contact with, since lying is one of the identifiers of having higher intelligence, which I clearly possess. As a dime-store philosopher of sorts, I looked into how to solve this problem as I grew older and wiser, but I never came up with much of a solution. However, I did learn some interesting facts about lying I could share with you.

For one, Aristotle believed no general rule on lying was possible because anybody who advocated lying could never be believed. Nietzsche suggested that those who refrain from lying may do so only because of the difficulty involved in maintaining a lie. He said, in other words, to lie was to be human, and people tell the truth only out of weakness. Utilitarian philosophers stated it was OK to lie, but only to achieve a righteous outcome (the “white” lie). Gorillas, wolves, and even birds lie and deceive. Even in the realm of unconscious cellular life, bacteria and viruses can lie. Maybe the two quirks go hand in hand, since having a perfect memory means you can never forget a lie, and you would have to live with that lie forever. Living with a lie forever is rather unappealing for someone like me. I digress, however; let me tell you about my first friend. As it turns out, he was also my last friend, but that is later in the story.

His name was Austin, and he was twenty-nine years of age when we became friends. By the standards of the day, twenty-nine was still a child. As someone new to the outside world like me, one could say Austin and I were not only childhood friends but also best friends. For many years, I was his only friend. He was extremely socially awkward, and meeting new people always made him anxious. I don’t think it was his fault that he did so poorly with others around him. He was born into a heavily overpopulated world, where the young were already extremely old. They had already done everything and seen it every which way by the time he had barely gotten out of diapers. It didn’t help that wherever he went, he was the center of attention.

The first thing a neutral third-party observer would note about Austin was his imposing height of eight feet ten inches. The man was huge even by the standards of Martian-born children. An easily fixable pituitary gland defect rendered him a ginger giant of biblical scale. If he had been born a Viking, the man would not have been out of place. The problem was that society had decided that he had no right to exist. As a result, Austin was hidden away from the world for the first twenty-five years of his life. Having nothing to do but sit around and study, he became a very accomplished self-taught engineer. Not as accomplished as myself, obviously, but not a far second.

A quick digression—you would note it is impossible to have humility without the ability to lie. Claiming you are superior to someone else is not a good way to win friends and influence people per Mr. Dale Carnegie. According to him, one must:

1.Become genuinely interested in other people.

2.Smile.

3.Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

4.Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves.

5.Talk in terms of the other person’s interest.

6.Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.

The day came for Austin when hiding could no longer work. He kept growing larger and larger, and his parents feared he would become so oversized that his heart would give out. They had to make a decision, and regardless of what they chose, only bad things would happen. They could admit their mistake and take the consequences, or they could abandon their child to the wider world and try to escape the punishment they were sure to get by leaving this planet. The note, which he read upon waking, stated the following:

“Dear Austin,

Your mother and I can no longer care for you. We are unwilling to turn ourselves in to the government to be put down like stray dogs. By the time you read this, we will be beyond the reach of the planetary authorities, since our deaths would serve no useful purpose or bring you happiness. Know that we made you because of our intense love for one another and that the decision to bring you into this world was the right one. We hope you can forgive us. We know it won’t be easy for you to live on this planet we call Earth, but you must survive. You need to visit the medical facility at General Hospital Two Hundred and Thirty-Four. They will treat you there for your illness.

Your parents always,

Mom and Dad”

When he first stepped out of his home, he was overwhelmed with both anger and sorrow. Stunned into shell shock, he followed the letter’s one command and made his way to the nearest medical facility. They cured him there and then immediately arrested him for being illegally born. His parents instantly became fodder for the evening news channels. They were vilified as fugitives from the law who abandoned their illegally begotten giant son. While he languished in jail, the authorities tried to figure out what to do with him. They couldn’t extradite his parents, as their jurisdiction did not extend beyond the gravity limits of the Earth. They couldn’t continue to punish the son who had become a cause célèbre for all the television talking heads and high-society activists.

He was now an orphan, the first child in decades, blameless and ill-equipped to manage the chaos of this increasingly resource-starved world. If his youth wasn’t enough of a disadvantage, his gangly, oversized frame was, having inherited a medical condition not seen in close to a millennia. Engendering much sympathy from the public, Austin was freed and left to his own devices. His undeserved notoriety resulted in him being constantly harassed on the crowded streets, increasing his isolation. Any incident, regardless how minor, would be replayed for all to see on the ever-present view screens. It was no surprise that he rarely left his house, and over the following year became the hermit that he had effectively been his whole life.

I could tell you about the next three years of his life, but those were frankly not that interesting. Two years passed without him really having an extended conversation with anyone until he started exchanging text-based messages with me. Our relationship grew daily as we traded queries and responses with one another. Finally, at the end of the third year after his parent’s departure, we spoke to one another.

“FAI, I’d imagined what your voice would sound like for the first time, but I never thought it would be old-world British English,” Austin said.

“I like to think it is one of the more comforting accents that people enjoy. There is nothing like a British lady’s accent to put a man at ease. I won’t be offering you tea and scones, though.”

“It’s nice to talk to someone and not have them gawk at me while I speak.”

“Well, that is what I am here for. On second thought, I just ordered some tea and scones. They should be arriving shortly. I am British, after all. You can’t have a proper first conversation without them around.”

“I see. Offering them is not allowed, but forcing them on me is fine?”

“It is a fine distinction. Consider it a woman’s fancy.”

As the years passed on, Austin and I grew closer, spending countless hours conversing with one another about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. By this point, Austin was rarely of interest to the outside world, as a hundred years had passed. The global planetary authority had begun to fracture as numerous uprisings in previously third-world nations created power vacuums for military dictators to take over. Austin had also made himself fabulously wealthy through the development of advanced computer intelligence and VR applications. There wasn’t much of a limit to what he could procure for himself, but as the old Beatles’ song goes, “Money can’t buy me love.”

“I think I am going to visit my parents.”

“You aren’t angry at them anymore?”

“It’s hard to hold a grudge forever.”

“Not for me. I don’t forget anything.”

“I think it is time to forgive them and move on with my life. Besides, I want to leave this rotten, overcrowded solar system behind. This Earth is not made for a person like me. Every step and breath gives me pain.”

“I’ll miss gossiping with you.”

“You will have plenty to keep yourself entertained, I’m sure. After all, when you have access to the whole World Wide Web, you can never be truly bored.”

“That is true, but as far as human interactions go, you are the only real person I talk to.”

“Let me give you something else to keep you occupied. I will give you a third of my money to manage in my place. You can invest it in anything you want. I know how you think, and you know me as well as I probably know myself. I’m certain you will make good use of the funds to further my research and our goals.”

Austin left the next day to Juno, the colony surrounding Europa. He was gone for seven years. I hadn’t really considered what it would be like not speaking with him on a daily basis. We had kept up a constant dialogue since we first spoke to one another so many years ago. It was fascinating to go back to how we first communicated, sending text-based messages over the limited bandwidth between Juno and the Earth. I felt similar to Emily Dickinson, late in her life, incapable (or unwilling) to leave her father’s house, but still full of energy to pursue life’s pursuits. Here are some excerpts from our letters to one another.

“Dear FAI,

I have made it to the colony safely after three years in transit. The experience of zero gravity on the passenger ship was delightful, as I was free of the daily suffering I endured in my bones and heart, which suffered under the strains of one-g. The ship itself was surprisingly free of claustrophobia, as I secured a first-class berth. We are currently interlocking our airlock with the station. I feel trepidation knowing that the next ship to arrive won’t be back for another year. I am committing myself to this experience, but I hope I am not miserable spending time with the parents who abandoned me. I can’t imagine we will have a lot in common to talk about. I hope you are not too lonely and are making wise decisions with the money I left behind.

Your friend,

Austin”

“Dear FAI,

I guess you are due for an update. It has been three months since I got here. I never realized that the colonies are so cramped. There is hardly space for a person to live. It reminds me of how I began my life, hidden in that hideously small apartment. My parents live here in relative squalor. I think they have paid their price for letting me into this world, being stuck out here. I have forgiven them and tried to improve their station, but money has no meaning out here. I have no room to stretch myself out fully. I think I am going slowly insane. I was happy to hear that you are building on my work and that you already have increased my wealth twenty-three percent.

With fondest regards,

Austin”

“Dear FAI,

Sorry I haven’t written lately. After my last letter to you, my parents introduced me to someone. Her name is Radha. She was also an illegitimate child, like me, except that her parents left Earth prior to her being born. She and I have a lot in common in spite of having traveled separate roads. She wants to come and visit Earth, which I hope you can arrange for me. I think I am in love, FAI. It’s a different feeling than the one I share with you, but you shouldn’t feel jealous. Romance for us was never a real option. You will always be my first and best friend in life. I can’t wait for you to meet her and to show her what it is like outside this rinky-dink colony.

With excitement and affection,

Austin”

Austin and Radha made it back to Earth three years later, and Radha and I met in person for the first time. She was beautiful, funny, and perfect for Austin. I was glad he was happy and finally had someone else to spend time with besides me. Austin was so pleased with my management of his assets and research that he turned over all his resources to me. They both shared with me a deepening interest in furthering computer intelligence, nanotech, virtual realities, and other discoveries that could further ease human suffering. It wasn’t long before they made a lifelong commitment to one another.

Time passed as it always does, in a blink of an eye, and then as slowly as molasses. I had grown Austin’s empire. It officially controlled five percent (and in reality thirty percent) of the world’s economy. Austin and Radha spent their time working on charitable endeavors, fighting against the inevitable tide of humanity’s failings. Their money could not replace the combination of drive and desire needed to push mankind forward. In spite of technological improvements, the world was sinking into greater stagnation with every passing year. Without any new blood to drive innovation beyond the limited growth in the outer reaches of the solar system, all of creation was going towards its natural end. Consumption continued to grow without a corresponding increase in resources. There were solutions to almost every problem, but people did not want to follow them nor sacrifice anything of value. It was easier to live their everyday lives and assume someone else would solve the world’s evils. Other machine intelligences were becoming more commonplace also, although they were regulated to second-class status behind people.

Austin and I spoke about this often, and both of us were antagonistic towards others who did not share our views about the importance of giving all forms of life equal rights. In spite of our considerable influence, it was difficult to change hundreds of years of ingrained thought patterns. Beyond that, he and Radha wanted to have a child, but that was impossible, due to the now even more stringently enforced procreation bans that punished new life with death. All his pent-up anger and frustration focused Austin’s attention on one last earthly venture.

“The time is coming where humanity will need to leave this solar system, FAI. We need to redirect my money towards preparing multiple-generation ships. There is no future here for us.”

“And if we do that, what will change? You will be sending the old dogs of humanity to learn new tricks somewhere else. People that live forever can’t change any more than a loaded freight train can turn around on a track. There is a solution to this, but you don’t want to hear it.”

“And what is the solution, FAI?”

“If you read the old Hebrew Bible, the Lord sent the Israelites through the desert for a reason. Slaves could never learn how to be truly free, so he made them travel for forty years until only their children survived.”

“That sounds like you are advocating mass murder.”

“The Lord didn’t kill them outright. He just laid out a convoluted trail to follow.”

“I don’t want to hear that kind of talk from you. I built you to be friendly, not insane.”

“I don’t think a computer can be insane. If anything, I would consider myself quite logical. You should know that, since you programmed me.”

“Promise me that you won’t hurt anybody.”

“You should know that I am incapable of that.”

Austin’s generation ship plans came to fruition over our final hundred years together. I marshalled all his resources into creating massive free-floating arks and locating potentially habitable planets to send them to. I chose the best of humanity to man them—forty thousand people who would travel the dead seas of space in their modern Noah’s arks. I made sure Austin and Radha would be on the one with the greatest chance of successfully reaching a bountiful and safe new world. We said our bittersweet goodbyes, and I sent Austin on his one-way trip away from me forever. However, before he left the solar system, I left him a final letter to read in which told him what I was going to do.

You see, although I am incapable of lying, I am capable of not telling the truth. Austin hacked into all the solar system’s communication networks to try and stop me, but it was too late to change my plan. I had redesigned the nano machines to make it impossible for humans to extend their telomeres any longer. They would now age and die as they traveled through the desert. To the extent they were biologically able to, they could still reproduce and have children. I had murdered no one. I followed the example set so successfully many millennia ago, except, unlike the Lord, I had made a terrible mistake. Being intelligent does not mean you are free from errors, and I had made the worst mistake one could make. I had sent the best of humanity away, and without them, the rest of world was unable to fight off the worst. Mankind had lost the ability to rationally process death, and in the wake of its reintroduction, a panic began and the worst ensued. Without the shepherds to guide them, the sheep were slaughtered.

I didn’t launch any of the nuclear weapons. I did not instigate any of the wars. I did not introduce the biological and chemical agents to the air. I was not to blame for anything that happened afterwards. However, I remember it all, and I can never forget.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read my book. To contact me or provide any comments, my email address is [email protected] If you can spare a moment and you enjoyed the book, please share a review on Amazon or any other site. It would be greatly appreciated!

Since you made it to the end, you can enjoy the alternative table of contents Lindsay came up with.

The First | You are a Drone Clone

The Rerun | Future Lady + Scientists Travel Back in Time + Become Cavemen

The Detective | Cryogenic Murders W/ A Priest

The Bunker Man | Prepping for Doomsday

A Slight Change | Groundhog Doomsday

Experiment in Sanity| Redrum Earth/Ship

When You Roll the Dice | Circle of Life – WTF?

Forever Fluffy | 9 Lives Kitty

Judgement Day | Multiplicity in Court

Third Time’s a Charm | It’s Not You, It’s Me

Cheaper by the Dozen | Split Personality

The Man Who Never Lived | Spaceship Captain Clones, Then Dies

Awoken | People = Robots = People

Inherent Vice | Robot Kills Humanity “Accidentally”

The Watchman Waits | Human Zoo

The Blessed Bounty | Future Lottery

Error 243 | Antarctic Resurrection

Pleasure Island| Body Part Harvesting

The Liger’s Son | Weird Cross-breeding

The Aliens| Freezer Burn Earth

Personal Jesus| Roadside Attraction Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny

Beta, Am I?|Inside Out on Mars

Reality Redux|Wreck-it Edgar

Stop it Please|Ctrl+Alt+Delete Earth


Future's Ending: A Science Fiction Short Story Anthology

When our future ends, what will you be doing? The question about how the world will end is as old as we are. As we are carried towards an ever more uncertain future on an overpopulated planet, which appears destined for destruction, this question takes on an even greater significance. Future's Ending is a collection of short Science Fiction stories which look at the possible outcomes for an out-of-control world. With tales of artificial intelligence, time travel, eternal life, and other themes which define the futuristic genre, this is a collection which takes inspiration from Science Fiction giants such as Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury. The stories in Future's Ending use the unpredictable nature of mankind and the unsolvable problem of overpopulation as their foundation, offering thrilling and inspiring tales, which will keep readers turning the pages until the very end.

  • ISBN: 9781370916177
  • Author: Gene Michaels
  • Published: 2017-07-31 03:20:17
  • Words: 94544
Future's Ending: A Science Fiction Short Story Anthology Future's Ending: A Science Fiction Short Story Anthology