Nevada

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It was getting easier, since her parents had died. When they’d fallen from that building, Carrie’s life had completely changed. Her closest relative, her uncle, lived deep in Nevada. Deep, deep, where all there was to see was hills and grass and stone.

Carrie liked the cows. They spent all day wandering around, nibbling on the brush, and sometimes Carrie would follow them all the way up The Big Hill, on the farthest corner of her uncles property.

There was a town about eight miles away, but maybe town wasn’t the right word. Town sounded too big. It was just a stop, a place to get a bite and chat with strangers. None of them were strangers to her uncle. He knew every man, every woman, every kid. They only went into town a couple times a week, and it was just to buy food, or fill up the truck with gas.

Carrie was only nine years old. Her uncle knew that she wasn’t to be trusted with any real work on the farm. All that she had to do was let the cows out at the crack of dawn, and then round them back up before sundown. It was like a game, really. Carrie went all over the land, over the hills, around the big stones, and under the one big tree on the whole property. She’d find every single cow, and she’d offer it food and let it follow her back home. It took a couple of hours to get them all, but it was sorta fun, and the cows were all really nice.

When she’d first come here, there had been seventeen cows, but now there were only sixteen. Her uncle hadn’t told her what happened to the seventeenth one. There’s a little room in the back of the big barn, a room that her uncle never let her look at. He said it was where the cows got turned into meat. Carrie had no idea what happened in that room, and she was scared to look.

Every week, a man in a big truck came by. Her uncle always asked for Carrie’s help moving all of the milk. The man in the big truck bought the milk at two dollars a gallon, which didn’t seem like very much, but her uncle didn’t mind. There wasn’t much to spend money on out here anyway.

Carrie missed talking to people, to kids, to friends. She talked to the cows a lot. Every day she gave them new names, because they were so hard to tell apart. Today the two under the big tree were named Betty and Susie. Tomorrow they might be Billy and Sally. On some days, Carrie had time to go over the whole land, all along the prickly fence, and she’d name every single cow, but she’d always forget which names she’d already used by the time she got to the last ones.

There was a time that her uncle forgot to fill up the truck with gas when he went into town, and he didn’t have enough to get to the gas station. He had to walk for miles to get a big orange container full of gasoline. It took him ages to get back home. Carrie had never really thought about how big the world was before. The hills went on and on and on and on. Before cars were invented, how did anybody get anywhere?

And it captivated her. Most days, just as the sun was setting, just before she was supposed to round up the cows, Carrie would climb up The Big Hill and look at it all. On the clearest of days, the hills never ended. She wanted to run until she found the edge of the world. But there was no edge. It really did go on forever.

On her first night at her uncle’s farm, she hadn’t slept at all. She kept thinking over and over that her life was finished, and this was some new, imitation life. She wasn’t ever seeing her parents again. She wasn’t ever seeing her school friends again. She wasn’t ever going to have new friends, not as long as she was out here.

But sleeping got easier, because it was so tiring to climb the hills all day. When the sun set, Carrie got so tired that she couldn’t think about how sad she was. Or maybe she wasn’t really sad anymore. All that she felt was sleepy.

And this was how some people lived their lives. This was how her uncle did it. There was no time to feel if you were so busy managing cows, milking, bottling, working. There was something new for her uncle to do every single day. He had to fix a leak in the ceiling, or chop wood to build a fire, or go into town for something important. He scarcely even had time to talk to her.

Carrie hadn’t finished third grade, because she’d had to move out here, and she knew that as soon as summer ended, she’d have to go to the little school in town. Wouldn’t she? Her uncle didn’t have time to drive her into town every day, and he couldn’t afford the gas. She’d asked him about getting a bicycle, but he hadn’t really told her yes or no.

Maybe she didn’t have to go to school. Maybe she never had to learn ever again. It sounded nice, but it felt wrong in a way.

It was getting easier, since her parents had died. Since they’d fallen from that building, Carrie’s life had been put on pause. Time didn’t pass out here. Every morning was the same. Every afternoon was the same. Every evening was the same. Every night was the same. Was it a bad life? She couldn’t be sure. Maybe some day her uncle would teach her new things, like how to fix a leak in the ceiling, or how to chop wood to build a fire, or how to drive into town, and someday she could own the whole farm.

But for now, life was okay when it was on pause. If time stopped, maybe Carrie wouldn’t even notice.

Unskip

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Steve couldn’t believe it. He actually couldn’t believe it.

He had been a straight-A student. He was in all AP classes. He was always considered the brightest guy in the class.

And then the law had changed.

The grade he had skipped, all the way back in third grade, was now invalid. Steve was supposed to be going into his senior year at high school, but he wasn’t allowed to. You can’t go into twelfth grade if you haven’t finished third grade.

So here he was, on the first day of school, sitting at a tiny desk in a tiny chair, surrounded by eight-year-olds.

Mrs. Reeve didn’t look surprised to see him when she walked into the classroom, just as the bell rang. She had likely been warned about Steve beforehand. As her eyes ran over the students, one by one, they seemed to go straight past Steve, as if he weren’t even there.

There had to be some way out of this. There had to be. When Steve first went into high school, he’d been able to skip straight into pre-calc by convincing the algebra teacher that he knew all of the material. His algebra teacher had let him take the final exam, and he aced it. Just like that, he’d been allowed into pre-calc. Maybe there was some sort of quiz he could take, proving that he knew literally everything a third grader would know.

Just as Mrs. Reeve was about to open her mouth, Steve said aloud, “Is there any way that I could, like, not be here?”

Mrs. Reeve narrowed her eyes, and the kids around him snickered. “When you speak, you have to raise your hand first,” Mrs. Reeve told him. She looked impatient already.

With a grunt, Steve raised his hand.

She didn’t call on him. “Welcome to your first day of third grade!” she said, suddenly wearing a brilliant and cheesy smile. “Don’t any of you worry. Things won’t be too difficult on our first day. We’re just going to play some games to get to know each other.”

One of the girls in the back row asked, “Who’s the big guy?”

Steve hissed at her, “You have to raise your hand!”

He was ignored. Mrs. Reeve answered, “This is Steve. He’s one of our older students. He had to be held back, due to complications he had with his high school.”

“That’s not really how—” Steve started, but he was drowned out by the muttering and giggling kids all around him. Why had he decided to sit right in the center of the classroom? He should’ve sat in the back, so he didn’t feel so surrounded. And that way the boy picking his nose behind him could actually see the board.

Do they care that a boy his blatantly picking his nose in the middle of the classroom? No. They care that the really big kid forgot to raise his hand.

“Everybody,” Mrs. Reeve said. “We’re going to go around the room, and I want everybody to say their name and something special about themselves. We’ll start here.” She pointed.

“I’m Jessica,” a girl said. “I have a horse!”

“Excellent!” Mrs. Reeve said, wearing her cheesy smile again.

“I’m Toby,” a boy said. “My dad has a motorcycle!”

“Great!” Mrs. Reeve said.

The activity continued predictably, but Steve actually felt nervous as his turn approached.

“My name is Susie, and I can make cookies!”

“Wonderful!” Mrs. Reeve beamed.

Steve cleared his throat. “I’m Steve. I’m seventeen years old.”

“Mmhmm,” Mrs. Reeve grunted, turning to the next student. Apparently the special fact wasn’t special enough.

“I’m Cody,” the next boy said. “I can do a somersault!”

“Lovely!” Mrs. Reeve said cheerily.

Steve couldn’t help but roll his eyes, yet as soon as he did, he felt embarrassed. He found himself hoping that the teacher hadn’t noticed.

After they’d finished the activity, every kid got a piece of paper and was told to draw a picture of themselves. What? Seriously? Steve had finished elementary school so long ago, he’d forgotten how stupid this stuff was. Like, he knew it’d be kinda stupid, but but this was ridiculous! He was bored out of his mind.

Two hours passed. The monotony finally stopped when their first recess started, at ten thirty. Steve dragged his feet out to the hall while the kids swarmed around him, threatening to knock him to the ground. Steve seemed to be the last person to make it to the playground while other classes spilled out of the school. Fourth graders. First graders. All of them. The play structure was coated with children.

“Who’s the big kid?” one girl asked a friend, too loudly.

“I dunno, but he looks gross,” her friend answered.

“You don’t think he’s stupid, do you?”

Steve spoke up. “It’s not because I’m stupid. I’m actually quite—”

But the girls screamed and ran away.

Somehow that was the best thing that happened during recess. A kid followed Steve around making faces. One boy called him a “baby adult.” A few of the kids thought that he was some kind of undercover teacher, and kept trying to figure it out in the least subtle ways imaginable. A couple of girls decided that he had cooties, and Steve thought it would be funny to tell them what an STD was, but a teacher overheard him and made him stand in a corner for half of the recess.

It was insane. It was impossible. How could the highest achieving student in an entire high school be reduced to this? How was he being treated like a disrespectful idiot? And… were these kids bullying him? Was that what this was? The teachers seemed to loathe the mere sight of him, so he got the feeling that he would be getting into trouble a lot more he already had.

But at least there wasn’t going to be much homework. At least he didn’t have to worry about grades at all.

It was a whole year. An entire year of third grade.

Steve wasn’t going to survive.

 

Migration Patterns

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“Well, where is it?”

Pamela shrugged, her binoculars still at her eyes. The whirr of the helicopter’s propellers was deafening, so she felt that there was no point in responding.

“Well?” Evan said again. “Where is it?”

She shushed him, aiming her binoculars left as the helicopter turned. Evan had been flying her for almost two hours now, a much longer excursion than usual. It was easy to understand his frustration. Still, Pamela hadn’t gotten a good triangulation. The elephants were traveling northeast, and the birds were flying southeast, but where would their paths cross?

“What about the fish?” Evan asked. It might’ve been a joke. The helicopter was so loud, Pamela couldn’t even be sure if she’d heard him correctly.

“What about them?” Pamela said, humoring him.

“We can’t track them, can we?”

“Plenty of aquatic life have tracking tags,” she answered. “Marine biologists love those things. We can ask them later.” It was almost a good enough angle for her to take out her camera and snap a photograph. It would’ve been marvelous, and their boss would’ve loved it, but they had to stay focused. There wasn’t time to get the camera set up and wait for a perfect shot, not with Evan in this mood.

“Can we land?” he asked her. He might’ve been begging.

Pamela aimed eastward. They were far from any cities, hanging over northeastern Egypt. There was sparse foliage, and there was hardly any color but beige to be seen.

“Has anybody figured out why this is happening yet?” Evan complained.

“Instinct,” she replied.

They were all going somewhere. It was clear to everyone in the world. It started quietly, only noticed by a handful of researchers, noticing migration patterns changing. Some animals shifted course, going due east, others going due west. Even the sea creatures, like the whales and the fish, all suddenly changed course. The birds stop flying south for the winter. The salmon stopped returning to the rivers. They were all going the wrong way.

Other people started to notice too. There weren’t so many mosquitoes out anymore. There weren’t so many ants, or flies, or bees. One by one, families found that their cats and dogs had escaped from their houses, sprinting off without any clear reason. Birds went wild, breaking free form their cages. Hamsters tried to squeeze between the bars, break free. Fish leapt out of their aquariums only to dry out and die on the hardwood floor.

They were all going to the same place. Every single animal in the world was traveling as fast as it could to one location.

The scientists worked together, comparing data, and the military donated some vehicles to watch over the bizarre migrations, and everybody seemed to cooperate thanks to this strange, inexplicable phenomenon. Everything else in the world simply… stopped. No more wars. No more politics. No more economics. It was captivating.

They were gathering in the Middle East, right around the location of the Fertile Crescent. It had long been said to be the dawn of humanity.

“Maybe it’s the whole region, and they’re already at their destination,” Evan suggested.

“It’s not,” Pamela told him. “They’re all still moving. We need to find a herd of animals that has stopped.”

“Here’s what gets me,” he said, his words almost completely lost under the helicopter’s propellers. “If all of the animals are going to the same place at the same time by sheer instinct, oftentimes even land-designed animals leaping into an ocean and drowning because the stupid things can’t swim, why aren’t humans captured by that same instinct? We’re animals too, aren’t we?”

That made Pamela lower her binoculars. She chewed on her lip as she thought. “We’re following the animals. Seems like we’re winding up at the same place anyway, doesn’t it? Maybe the others are doing the same thing, just following each other.”

Evan shook his head. “Seems fishy.”

“There!” Pamela said. There was a circle, a great circle on the horizon. “East! Due east!”

Evan was gawking through the front windshield searching for what she saw. It was very faint, but she knew. There was a massive circle of animals, all standing around one specific point.

As they flew in closer, Pamela could tell that they weren’t the first ones to arrive. There were a couple of other helicopters landed on the uneven terrain, not a long distance off. And there were tire tracks, and sounds of commotion, and cars, and vans, and it was an incredible sight to see.

“Land,” Pamela commanded.

“Let’s get closer,” Evan said.

“Land? You’ll scare them off!”

“I don’t know about you, but I get the sense that these animals aren’t going to move for anything. They came all this way to get scared off by a couple of pesky people? I don’t think so.” Nonetheless, Evan seemed to see the sense of it and started to bring the helicopter downward.

“Who do you suppose they are?” Pamela asked, shifting her binoculars. “The people, I mean.”

“Researchers like ourselves,” he guessed. “Or maybe locals around the area. We’re not the only ones who noticed the stampede. It’s all over the news.”

Pamela gave him an incredulous grimace. “They aren’t stampeding anywhere. They’re migrating.”

Evan muttered something under his breath, impossible to hear over the roar of the descending helicopter.

As the ground grew closer, there were more people visible than she’d imagined. Hundreds had gotten here before them. Pamela couldn’t help but feel a twinge of annoyance that they were far from the first to find the location.

By the time they’d landed and packed up their gear, four more vans had driven up and parked, one of which belonged to a news team. It only made her more anxious. It didn’t seem right, all of these wild animals being gaped at like they were in a zoo. Then again, she’d shown up to gape at them as well.

The circle of animals was almost half a mile in diameter. There was nothing in the center, nothing but a big empty space on a barren piece of land.

“You’re here for the show?” a grinning man asked her as she passed with Evan close behind.

“Show?” Pamela said back to him. It wasn’t the right term at all. These people had no respect. Before long, this really was going to turn into a stampede, and nobody would be grinning then.

The man took of his sunglasses, squinting. “The show. You haven’t got the news, have you? With you flying around the past hour or so, must’ve missed it.”

“What’s going on?” Evan said, catching up. He already sounded winded from the short hike.

“A new animal,” the man said.

Pamela looked back to the circle on the horizon. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

He grinned again. “This place is sacred. The birthplace of all life. Mankind started here, and I suppose every other animal did too. And now there’s a new one.”

Pamela didn’t understand. Everything she knew about evolution and adaptation was flickering through her brain, but she contained herself. “A new animal,” she stated.

The man pointed. “It’ll appear right in the center of that ring. Instinct brought the others back home to watch. S’pose it brought you two as well.”

Pamela glanced to Evan, who had nothing to say, likely because he was still breathing too heavily to speak.

“Well,” Pamela said, “let’s go and see the new animal.”

 

My Favorite Robot

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“I’m very sorry, Mr. Clark, but you’re dying.”

Brett swallowed. “Dying?”

The doctor adjusted his glasses. “It’s a neurological disorder. Degenerative. The longest you might live is up to ten years, but I wouldn’t get optimistic. Most people don’t even make it to three.”

Brett looked at his hands in his lap. He was clammy all over. He’d felt it in his head, in his brain, only slightly. There hadn’t been any real symptoms, just a feeling of uneasiness. He’d also been feeling dreadfully lonely, which the doctor had assured him was a classic symptom. “Is there no cure? No operation? Nothing?”

“There… is a cure,” the doctor said, as hesitant as can be. “But it is extremely difficult to, er, administer.”

“But of course I’ll do it!” Brett said. “Why shouldn’t I? Tell me what the cure is. Is it a matter of cost? I’ll pay everything I’ve got!”

The doctor was shaking his head the moment Brett had started talking. “The cure isn’t something that I can give you. It’s not medical, precisely.”

Brett wasn’t following. “Not medical,” he repeated numbly.

“Not medical.” The doctor took a breath, and then finally dropped his clipboard on the desk in front of him with defeat. “The only cure is true love.”

Brett assumed that he’d misheard. “True love?” It was silly to say it aloud. Obviously he’d misheard. Brett didn’t know much about neuroscience, but it was clearly ridiculous.

“That’s right,” the doctor said. “The only way to treat this disorder is to find true love. Of the reported cases, only five percent, maybe less, have been able to treat themselves. Despite appearances in the modern world, true love is extremely rare.”

“True love!” Brett found himself laughing. He must’ve been dreaming. “The only thing I have to do is find true love? I’ll go on some dating websites! Do some speed dating! Whatever! You said I had years to pull it off!”

The doctor coughed into his fist. “Erm, yes, I did say that you had years. Many patients with this disorder make it at least two years after being diagnosed. But you see… true love is a chemical thing. Your brain is changed by it. A very small percentage of the population actually experiences it, even if they think that they can.”

But Brett had stopped listening. There was a commercial running through his head, he’d seen it on TV a hundred times, with that stupid little jingle. “Ladybot,” Brett said. “Ladybot. You’ve seen the ads, haven’t you? Manbots and Ladybots? They’re a couple thousand bucks, but hey, that’s cheaper than cancer treatment!” He was laughing again, uncontrollably. “That’s all I have to do! I’ll buy myself a Ladybot and program her with the exact settings that I need!”

The doctor leaned forward. “It’s a possibility, but you might find—”

“It’ll work fine! You’ve seen how realistic they look these days! A good Ladybot is practically indistinguishable from a human!” Brett paused. “Maybe it’ll cost more than a couple thousand if I want the best on the market. Ah, but don’t you see?” He was grinning like a crazy person.

The doctor spread his arms. “As I’ve already told you, the treatment is not medical. I can give you recommendations, but this is out of my hands.”

Brett stood and felt compelled to shake the man’s hand. “Thanks a ton, doc. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine! I’ll be great! I’ll be cured in a month!”

Brett was not cured in a month.

“Sweetie?” he asked his Ladybot. “Can you fetch me something to eat?”

“Yes, Mr. Clark,” she said, her smile unfading.

“No, no,” Brett said, his hand over his face. “Stop calling me Mr. Clark. Brett will do just fine.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Yes, Brett. I will get you food right away.”

Moments later, she returned with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, his favorite lunch. “Again?” he said, his shoulders slouching as he took the plate. “You gave me PB&J yesterday for lunch.”

“Of course!” Ladybot said. “You had told me that it was your favorite lunchtime meal! I can show you my data logs if you’d like.”

“No, no, no, that’s fine. It’s just… Three PB&Js in a row is a little much. Can you spice things up a bit?”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches will be served no more than two lunches in a row. They will also feature spices.”

“No! No spices!” Brett shouted.

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him.

He set the sandwich aside. “Now, please, sweetie, have a seat.”

Her strangely cold flesh sat down in his lap. “Yes, Brett? How can I help you?”

“Well, ah, hm, the trouble is, you’re being a little too helpful. Do you know what I mean?”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him.

“It’s like, you know, you do everything I ask. It’s like you’re a slave, not a person. If you really want me to love you, you need to show some personality, maybe have some opinions that differ from mine.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Brett, I do not like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They are incompatible with my software.”

“See! There we go!” Brett said, trying to make himself sound cheery. “Perfect. Just wonderful. What would you like to watch on the TV this afternoon?”

Ladybot’s head hung to its side. “It is not my opinion to watch TV, Brett. What do you want to watch?”

“Well the game’s on, you see. I’d like to watch that.” He went for the remote.

“Brett, I do not like sports,” Ladybot said. “It is not my opinion to watch this game.”

“Hm, ah, well, alright,” Brett said, his arm still halfway to the remote. “Now I feel like you’re just disagreeing with everything that I say. That isn’t quite what I meant. I think that you need to find a middle ground.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Please enter a percentage value for future disagreements.”

“Ah, hm, well, sweetie, if I tell you a percentage value, I feel like you’re still choosing your opinions at random. I mean, I’m no expert with computers, but—”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “My opinions can be determined via a random number generator. Does this mode suit your desires?”

Brett shifted in his seat. Her skin felt a little too clammy. “Er, yes. I suppose it will do. We can work out the specifics later. But if I tell you how to act, it doesn’t make you feel all that… human?” He shifted again. “Your skin is very cold.”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “Body temperature increasing. Body temperature settings will remain at near-human temperatures indefinitely.”

“Anyway, as I was saying,” Brett went on, feeling her slowly warming, “I was thinking that maybe we should have some arguments, or something. It’s normal for couples, isn’t it? We can’t be perfect. It feels too weird. So the percentage of future disagreements settings… Well, I feel—”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “I hate you. I am breaking up with you.”

“Oh! Ah! Hm. Well, that’s not quite what I meant. And you know I told you about using contractions more often.”

“Contraction frequency is set to 10%. 10% of possible contractions in the English language will be applied to my vernacular. If you wish to reconfigure the programming—”

“Ah! Hm! Oh. I think you’re missing my point. And please, can you make me something else to eat? I don’t think I’m in the mood for PB&J right this moment.”

Ladybot stood. “Yes, Brett. I will make you some tuna sandwiches instead.”

Brett drummed his fingers on his leg. “Hm! Oh! Ah. Well, I don’t quite like tuna sandwiches. I thought we’d discussed this.”

“We have,” Ladybot said. “We are having an argument.”

“That’s not, er, quite how it’s supposed to go.” Brett leapt to his feet, suddenly in a panic. “You’re supposed to make the tuna sandwich anyway, without even asking me! And then I’d get it from you and tell you I don’t like it, and you’re supposed to get offended! And then, THEN we fight! And you’ll tell me to eat it anyway, and complain about how much you do for me without anything in return, and I’ll try to defend myself, and… and…!”

“Reconfiguring programming,” Ladybot told him. “I will be in the kitchen, preparing our argument.”

Brett sunk into his chair. Just a little more tweaking was all she needed. Just a little more.

 

The Last Airplane

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“This is your pilot speaking. I’m afraid we’re going to have some difficulty landing.”

The passengers didn’t find this very funny at all. In fact, the majority of them were still unconscious from the Earth-shattering explosions.

Literally Earth-shattering. One moment Earth was hanging underneath them. The next it was a ball of fire.

Now there was nothing.

Earth had exploded.

The plane had been catapulted into deep space at an incredible velocity. The force was so powerful that every passenger was immediately knocked out. It took ten minutes for the acceleration to slow, and for the plane to to stop spinning so rapidly.

The copilot had been one of the first to wake. When he looked out at the ground, he saw that there was no ground.

There was black space outside. Infinite black space.

The copilot shook the pilot awake. “Sir! Sir! What happened?”

It took a lot of effort to rouse the pilot. His eyes were bloodshot when he opened them. The force of the explosion had caused serious damage to his brain, though he didn’t know it yet. His head had also slammed into the console repeatedly. “Crashed?” the pilot gurgled.

“No, we’re in the air,” the copilot said. He looked out at the blackness again. “At least… I think we are.” For a moment he thought that they were deep underwater, but the plane wouldn’t withstand being submerged. He was reminded of his night flights.

“Where are we?” the pilot moaned.

The copilot grappled with the controls, lightly maneuvering them, though he found that nothing he did could change the plane’s course. According to the monitors, they were spinning. Spinning? How could that be?

The copilot unbuckled his seatbelt, and that was when he realized something that he should have when he’d first woken up. He had been too dazed to notice, but he wasn’t completely situated in his seat. In fact, the moment that he unbuckled, his body started to rise upwards.

“Sir?” the copilot said wearily. “Sir, we have a serious problem.”

The pilot was a much older man. While the copilot was in his late twenties, relatively inexperienced, the pilot had been flying planes for three decades.

But nothing had prepared him for this moment.

That was when he had made his announcement to the passengers.

The pilot didn’t realize that Earth was gone. He considered it a possibility, but all that he knew for certain was that a massive explosion had launched them out of the atmosphere and into space.

Space. Hm. The pilot thought it over. There was no feasible way to locate Earth, if it was still out there at all. Which meant that this plane would never reach solid ground again. It was a disturbing thought, but as a pilot, he had trained himself to think objectively in a crisis. While most crashes happened while the plane was still on the ground, the pilot had experienced his fair share of close-calls in the air. Throughout his career, he’d had to make four emergency landings during cross-continental flights, either due to inclement weather or due to faulty equipment.

The copilot was not able to think so objectively. He was leaving the cockpit to investigate what had become of the passengers. However, he had only made it halfway to the door before panic set in. No gravity meant many of the plane’s controls would fail. The engines could move them forward, but it would be difficult to counteract the spin that the plane was currently experiencing.

Basically they were dead and they were never going to see the ground again.

The copilot didn’t handle this realization very well.

It was probably for the best that he didn’t make it out the door, because the situation out amongst the passengers was far more alarming. In fact, they could faintly hear the screaming and shouting from the other side, but both the pilot and the copilot were too tense to notice.

The passengers were in an absolute panic. By this point, they collectively had reached several more conclusions than the pilot and copilot combined.

For example, if they were never going to land the plane, then that meant there was a limited amount of food. Furthermore, there was an even more limited amount of air. None of them were clear on the specifics, but they were correct in believing that the oxygen was leaking out of their plane at an alarming rate. Normally they would all have about two and a half hours to live. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, several passengers had died from the massive explosion and sudden increase of velocity, and none of them were taking in oxygen. This saved the rest of the passengers approximately half an hour.

This half of an hour would actually be wasted, because almost everybody was hyperventilating, but it’s quite understandable.

In most situations that involved such a level of anxiety, the mayhem would escalate and some sort of brawl would break out. That’s what the intention was, at least. Several passengers were going to storm into the cockpit and attempt to commandeer the plane for themselves, because obvious the pilots had been flying them in the very wrong direction. Luckily for the copilot and the slightly brain-damaged pilot, the passengers didn’t get that far, as the lack of gravity made it much harder to maneuver than they’d expected. Moving without gravity is one thing, but moving through a group of flailing people, all of whom are panicking, was much different.

These were not the only humans left in existence. Four other airplanes had survived the explosion of Earth, with surprisingly few casualties. At the time, seven people had been aboard the International Space Station, and they had the highest chance of survival. Unfortunately, every single one of them happened to be male, so while they would last the longest, they would not be able to reproduce and save the species.

The copilot did eventually make his way out to greet the passengers. He was unable to calm anybody, because he wasn’t especially calm himself. Fights kept breaking out as people flew around the cabin, crashing into each other and throwing fists. The fights never lasted very long, as they were surprisingly exhausting, but another fight would break out only moments later on the other end of the plane.

Some people were scavenging for food already, stuffing their faces with little peanuts from sealed packets, drinking sodas and beers as quickly as possible in an effort to get an upper hand.

None of this would stop the oxygen from pouring out of the plane.

This was how humanity ended, wrestling and screaming.

The Forest

Standard

“Your first time?” the burly man asked.

“Yes, we’re from out of town,” Richard said. His fiancé was clutching his arm. He sensed that she was getting nervous, but now wasn’t the time to mention it.

The burly man stood from behind his desk. “Desk” wasn’t the precise word for it. It was a block of wood, to be more accurate. Everything in the cabin was made out of wood. It did resemble an office, just a little, but Richard wouldn’t have known were it not for the sign.

“So what brings you to the forest?” the man asked. “The art? The trees?”

“He’s here for the art,” Richard’s fiancé said. “I’m just here for the trees.”

“She’s a chemist,” Richard explained. “The rumors about the sap…”

“Right, right, of course,” the man said, nodding along. “Come with me. Either of you have a flashlight?”

Richard hadn’t considered it. It was only a little past noon. “Is it so dark?”

The man sorted through his desk. “I’ve only got the two flashlights. You’ll have to share one of them.”

As the man passed the light to Richard, Richard noticed the thick leather gloves on the man’s hands. They were the sort of gloves that would strangle somebody in a movie. Richard shivered, considering how cold it would be in the forest.

The moment that they stepped out of the office, his fiancé grabbed his arm again. What was she so worried about? They’d looked at all of the pictures online before they’d driven all the way out here. It wasn’t that creepy.

The burly man held his flashlight at his waist, already turning it on. It seemed unnecessary, yet they were only a minute’s walk into the trees when Richard felt he needed to turn his light on as well. The canopy was thick, leaving thin beams of light, beams that were too far apart. It was unnatural.

“The trees are strong here,” the burly man said loudly. His voice should have echoed, but the sound was muffled by the thick air. “These trees grow taller and faster than any in recorded history. This place was noted by the pioneers since as early as 1740.”

As they walked, it got somehow darker. Richard’s fiancé tightened her grip, and he could feel her breath getting heavier. He was tempted to ask the man to slow down, but didn’t intend to interrupt.

“But it’s the carvings!” the man went on. “That’s what really draws people here today. They didn’t start appearing until a little over sixty years ago. Very peculiar. Very peculiar indeed.”

For an instant, the man swung his flashlight back and forth, as if searching for something. He made a grunting sound and kept forward.

“The carvings were first sighted by my grandfather. He’s the man who set up shop here, giving tours. Been passed down the family ever since.”

Richard searched between the trees with his flashlight, hunting for a carving. They had only been walking for three or four minutes, but their car felt like it was miles away. He threw a glance to his fiancé, who seemed to be calming down as she got adjusted, but Richard frowned when he thought that he could see her breath. Was it really so cold? How was that possible? Again, he shivered.

“Here we are!” the burly man announced. The light settled on a wooden pole in front of them. But as Richard grew closer, he saw that it was anything but a pole.

The wooden carving was about five feet tall. It was perfect and precise. It was the shape of a woman, with wide eyes and an open mouth. She looked like she’d been startled by something.

“Hm,” the man said. He swung his light around in a full circle, searching. “Usually this is the second one we find. Must’ve passed the other.”

Richard stepped forward. He felt his fiancé’s arm fall away from his. His pressed the flashlight up against the face of the carving. The detail was incredible. It was as if the woman had been full and alive only a moment ago.

Richard asked, “How was this carving made? With a knife? No chance it was made with a saw.”

The man shrugged emphatically. “That’s the great mystery of it. I’ve seen a lot of wood carvings in my day, and nothing as intricate as this.” His leather gloves tightened on his flashlight, and he cleared his throat. “Take as long as you like, but there’s plenty more to see.”

Richard turned to his fiancé, her arms crossed and her teeth chattering. “No, let’s keep on,” he told the man.

“Alright.” The burly man aimed his light deeper into the trees. “This way then.” He paused, then nodded. “Yes, yes, this way.”

Richard grimaced. This man had better not get them lost.

They had only gone a short distance before they found another one. This carving was a tall man, his arms thrust out as if he’d been sprinting. “It’s amazing,” Richard admitted. He reached out his free hand and ran his fingers along the hair. Then he felt the face, the cold face.

The man took a few steps back, giving him some room. Richard hardly noticed, entranced. There was some magic inside of the wood, and he couldn’t look away. His hand kept moving over the surface, trying to imagine what kind of person was capable of carving this. How long had it taken? How many were out here in this forest?

“Careful,” the burly man said, returning to his side. He fidgeted with his gloves. “Splinters. And there’s lots of sap.”

“Yes, the sap,” Richard remembered. “There was something funny about it, wasn’t there?”

“What’s funny is that it isn’t sap at all. Should be, but it’s over ninety percent water.” He laughed a deep laugh. “Like they’re crying almost.”

Richard didn’t find it very funny. He turned to hand the flashlight to his fiancé, but she wasn’t behind them.

He froze. His light whipped around in the dark. “Ashley?” he called.

The man rotated slowly. “Hm. She didn’t have a flashlight, did she?”

Richard called again. “Ashley!”

The burly man tucked his flashlight under his arm and rubbed his leather gloves together, huffing out the cold air sharply. “Alright,” the man said. “You go that way. I’ll check over there.”

Richard nodded unconsciously. “Yes. Sure.” He cleared his throat. “Ashley!” How could she have gotten lost so suddenly?

The man disappeared into the dark so fast the Richard was sure he’d vanished into thin air. Shaking his head, Richard took cautious steps forward, waving the light around wildly. “Ashley! Ashley!” It was impossible that she had gotten so far that she couldn’t hear him. Then again, he’d noticed how the thick air seemed to muffle sound. There was something wrong with this forest. Something very wrong.

For a moment, he thought he’d spotted her, and Richard’s heart skipped a beat, but it was only another carving. He inched closer to get a better look at it.

Richard felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. The carving looked precisely like his fiancé.

He took another step forward, numb. The face, the hair, the posture, the clothes… Richard’s jaw chattered uncontrollably.

This wooden carving was identical.

There was movement behind him, and Richard swung around. The burly man was there. His breath made a mist in front of him.

“Sorry about this,” the man said.

“How… How is this possible?” Richard stammered. “This carving—” He couldn’t speak. He was petrified.

The man took off one of his leather gloves. Then he stared down at his hand as if he didn’t quite know what is was.

“Look at her!” Richard shouted, but the sound was so swallowed by the forest, it felt like he’d barely whispered.

The burly man stepped up to him, reaching out his bare hand.

Richard glanced over his shoulder, taking one last look at the wooden carving. By the time he’d turned back, the man was inches away from him, his hand at Richard’s cheek.

The man’s bare skin met Richard’s, and Richard felt… wrong. He felt stiff.

He felt like he was solidifying.

The look of panic never left his face.

 

The Envelope

Standard

It was a small town. It was a boring town. But boring was the way that Kevin liked it.

His life was fine until he’d gotten an envelope that couldn’t be opened.

He was a person who liked routine. He craved routine, to be more precise. Every morning he woke up, went to work, had lunch at the same café, and went home.

Kevin worked at a grocery store, working the checkout line on weekday mornings. Mornings were easy. The movements were so repetitive, the swiping of the barcodes, the sorting through the register… For hours at a time, Kevin could live with his eyes closed. He didn’t need to think. It wasn’t that he didn’t like thinking, he just never had much of anything worth thinking about.

After work, he went to the café. Everybody there knew him. It was a run by a family, the mom, the dad, the three daughters. They would share some small talk, but they weren’t precisely friends.

There was somebody new in the café that day. Kevin knew all of the lunchtime regulars. It was a young boy, probably still a student. He was sitting at the table next to Kevin’s, examining a crinkled white envelope.

Every once in awhile, the boy would look up, and their eyes would meet. Then he’d look back down at the envelope, flexing his fingers, making the paper crackle with every movement.

Kevin was eating a tuna salad sandwich. He almost always got the tuna salad sandwich on weekends. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays were typically days for grilled cheese sandwiches, while the Tuesdays and Thursdays were for bacon cheeseburgers. The only reason that he would ever break from this tradition was if the café had run out of ingredients for his preferred meal. Often when he came in, he wouldn’t have to bother ordering. One of the daughters would simply gesture to a seat and bring out the day’s lunch.

He hadn’t noticed, so absorbed in his food, and so absorbed in trying not to think of anything, but the boy at the other table had stood up and wandered over. Suddenly the boy was sitting across from him.

Kevin looked at him expectantly, but he didn’t have a clue what to say.

“Hey,” the boy said. The envelope was tight in his hand.

“Hello,” Kevin said.

The boy tilted his head, as if searching for something on Kevin’s face. “Can I ask you a favor? It won’t be any trouble.”

Kevin’s eyes were on the envelope. “I suppose not. Who are you?”

The boy shifted in his seat. He was anxious about something. “My name’s Bryan.”

“Kevin,” Kevin said, reaching out a hand and shaking his. He did it automatically, feeling that he had no choice. “I’ve never seen you here.”

“I don’t live in town,” the boy told him, shrugging slightly. His eyes were on the envelope too. “I’m from a couple cities over.”

Kevin furrowed his brow. “How old are you?”

Bryan smiled, like it was a joke. “Seventeen.”

“What are you doing out here?”

His smile grew. “I don’t quite know, to be completely honest. This morning I stole my dad’s motorcycle, and I started riding down the highway. No direction, no destination.”

Kevin thought about this for a moment. “You ran away from home.”

“I did,” Bryan said, flapping the envelope against his open palm.

“You have a license? You allowed to ride a motorcycle?”

“I suppose not. I hadn’t really thought about it.”

Kevin studied his face. Bryan’s tone seemed politely cheerful, but there was still an ounce of disappointment hidden behind it all. “Why did you leave?” Kevin asked.

“I had some problems with my dad. Nothing special. But… anyway, I have a favor I need to ask you.”

Kevin said nothing.

Bryan lifted the envelope to eye level. “I need you to take this. I don’t want it anymore.”

“You don’t want it,” Kevin repeated.

“A few years ago, my mom was in the hospital, sick. The docs gave her a one in ten chance of living.” He flapped the envelope again, the paper crinkling. “My mom always liked handwritten letters. She said there was something nostalgic about them, something… melancholic.” The word sounded strange coming from his mouth.

“That letter is from your mother,” Kevin concluded.

Bryan looked at it again, as if he hadn’t realized he was holding it. “My dad didn’t like to visit her in the hospital. I wanted to go alone, so I could talk to her without him looming in the back of the room, listening and judging…” He sighed deeply. “About a week after we last visited, my mom sent this letter. But she was dead before the letter arrived.”

Kevin didn’t know what to say.

Again, Bryan flapped the envelope against his palm. “My dad never saw the letter. I got it out of the mail, and I hid it in my room.”

“Why?”

He sneered. “My dad didn’t deserve to see it, didn’t deserve to know her last words.” His face fell a moment later, like a deflating balloon. “I didn’t deserve to read it either. So I never opened it.”

“Why?” Kevin asked again.

Bryan looked away, his gaze on anything but the envelope. “I don’t know, really. I had a fight with my dad last night. Not a big fight, or at least no bigger than any of the others. But I was done with him. It was the last time. So I left, and the only reason I stopped here was because the bike was running out of gas.”

He set the envelope on the table and slid it over to Kevin.

“I need you to take the letter. I don’t want it anymore.”

“Why?” Kevin asked for a third time. He felt foolish for repeating himself. “Why me?”

Bryan smiled, puffing air out of his nose. “You’re somebody. As long as it’s not me or my father, I don’t care who reads that letter.”

Kevin picked it up. He’d expected it to feel special, have a certain weight to it, but it was just crinkled paper. He didn’t want it. It was difficult to say precisely why, but it seemed that this letter wasn’t meant to be read. “Do you have any idea what it says?”

“I have no idea. I keep thinking about the kind of ink she used. Black ink? Red ink? Blue ink? Maybe it was written with a pencil. Maybe it’s written in perfect calligraphy. Maybe it’s meaningless scribbles, a desperate message from a dying mind. Maybe the pages are blank, one last crazy joke to infuriate my father.” He shook his head. “I have no idea. And I have no intention of finding out.”

Kevin stared at the paper, at the address on the front. The address was typed onto a sticker, likely printed off by the hospital. There really was no way of knowing what sort of ink had been used. You couldn’t see through the paper. “The town on the address,” Kevin said. “You really have come a long way.”

Bryan stood up. “I have.” Then as he turned away, he added, “I’m sorry.” It sounded like he meant it.

The boy returned to his table, eating the rest of his meal quickly. He was finished within a matter of minutes. He stood up, paid at the register, thanked the staff, and left. Kevin could hear the motorcycle revving outside.

Kevin wanted to open the envelope right there, right that instant. But something held him back. After he ate his lunch, he brought the envelope home, but still he didn’t open it. He decided to sleep on it, and save it for tomorrow.

Still, he didn’t open it.