Gardener

Gardener had been at his work for untold eons, at least that’s what he would tell people if he had anyone to tell it to. In truth, it had been 15,623 years since the last human had left, but who was counting.

When the last ship took off into the void of space, they activated Gardener with one simple directive: heal the planet of the damage they had caused. Within his memory files sat every climate record, animal population records, ocean levels, and every conceivably relevant datum relating to the planet that humans had ever recorded. At his disposal was a solar system spanning network of mining drones, solar arrays, and manufacturing facilities that could produce any desired part. There were ground and space based arrays that fed real time data into his central processing hub. There was nothing he couldn’t accomplish, the humans saw to that.

His first step was a surprising one: using his planetary drone network, Gardener went about systematically dismantling nearly all human structures. Only a few ancient structures were spared the wrath of the AI’s cutting lasers. The reasoning was simple, anything not made of stone posed too great of a biological hazard and risked further issues down the road, so it needed to be removed. Anything made of metal was melted down into ingots and stored in underground facilities for later use as needed, plastics and other general waste products were loaded up on rockets and fired into the sun, and nuclear materials were repurposed as reactors to run Gardener’s various systems. To his great surprise, The Great Cleanup only took Gardener a little over two hundred years. With that task out of the way, he was able to focus on the more time consuming tasks.

The first major step that needed to be taken was lowering the CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Not having any human industry around to pump pollutants into the atmosphere was a huge help, but there was centuries of damage that needed to be undone. While he had been sweeping away the remnants of human civilization, Gardener began a program of cultivating plant growth around the world, and focused his efforts on that. Before he knew it, fifty years had passed and saplings covered enough ground that the Amazon had been rebuilt, the ancient forests of Europe were returning, and the Sahara had been kept at bay.

With the green roads laid across the globe, the next project was helping animal populations to recover. Over the previous 250 years, some had recovered naturally, but there were still a fair number that were barely hanging on. To aide these struggling populations, Gardener made use of mobile maternity wards, large vehicles of his own design that would set up base in a habitat native to one of the endangered species to house and help nurture them while their populations recovered. With these wards animals could raise and nurture their young in peace and when the time was right, be let back into the wild as a strong and healthy adults. Part of this program unfortunately involved triaging certain species to keep there numbers in check, but this was mostly confined to species that had been classified as invasive during the time of humans. Within five hundred years, a proper ecological balance had been reached and Gardener was able to discontinue the program.

Having completed his primary directives at a far quicker pace than his creators intended, Gardener soon found himself bored. With no major projects to undertake, much of his day-to-day activities consisted of monitoring various markers of planetary health and keeping animal populations in check.

It was during one of his routine survey that he noticed something rather interesting: a troupe of apes constructing primitive shelters. Feeling what could best be approximated as excitement, Gardener found a new dimension to his mission that he had never considered: teaching up and coming intelligent lifeforms to be proper stewards and exist with the planet, rather than in spite of it.

Over the course of the next two thousand years, a method of communication was built up and a system of “schools” established. In the schools, the apes that showed the most potential for sentience were given more opportunities to mate than their less gifted brethren. While this led to some hurt feelings in the early days, progress was made and entire communities of fully sentient apes sprung up across the globe.

The sentient apes, having known nothing else, came to view Gardener as a god. While flattered, he made sure to explain to them that he was no such thing, except in the most abstract way possible. He taught the apes of their distant cousins, humans, who had created Gardener and came dangerously close to destroying all life on the planet. He used his creators as a cautionary tale and did everything that was within his power to instill the need to preserve nature into humanity’s successors.

As the apes began to develop a true civilization, a tragedy befell the planet. In an event that was several thousand years overdue, the supervolcano underneath what used to be known as Yellowstone erupted. This event triggered several other dormant supervolcanos around the world, creating a runaway catastrophe. Fires swept across the globe, huge clouds of ash blocked out the sun, and entire species went extinct. Gardner watched all these events unfold from space, powerless to offer any real help. Knowing that nothing could be done, he went went into a low power state and waited for the dust to settle.

After a several thousand year rest, Gardener booted his systems up and surveyed the damage. After the eruptions, the world entered into an ice age and most of the planet had frozen over to some degree. The great freeze had killed off most of the plant life he had worked so hard to cultivate, with nothing but the hardiest lichens able to survive in the new climate. With nothing to eat, the animal ecosystem had collapsed as well. Gone were the days of great herds of ungulates wandering the globe and various predators keeping the numbers in control.

The only major life forms to survive were found in the oceans. Whales, octopuses, algae, fish all managed to survive and thrive where others fell. Relieved to see that all was not completely lost, Gardener began to rebuild the world once again.

Drift

Frenzied communications crackled through the astronauts helmet. A dozen different voices tried to shout solutions over one another, but he ignored them all. He knew that he was beyond help.

“John, are you listening?” The voice that overrode the others belonged to Marsha. He knew he needed to answer her, otherwise she would never leave him alone.

“Of course I am,” he replied.

“Then what did I just say?” She made no attempt to hide the annoyance in her voice.

“Something about angling the thrusters on my EVA suit.” He felt that answer was correct-ish. He remembered one of the voices saying something about that.

“Yes,” bingo. “If you adjust the angle on your EVA thrusters, it should adjust your trajectory enough that we can get you with the shuttle.”
“I’m not sure what math your using, but I’m out of fuel, or at least enough fuel to do what your suggesting.” More voices began to shout at each other over the comms. He appreciated their concern, but he knew at this point there was nothing that could be done.

“Look, Marsha, there’s no point in you guys wasting the resources to come and get me. Sometimes you need to just take the L.”

“That is unacceptable,” she said. “We are going to find a way to get you. You should at least five hours of air. We can come up with a solution in that time.”

“If you aren’t going to listen, than I’ll just make the choice easy for you,” and with that John began to detach himself from the EVA unit.

“What are you doing!” Marsha screamed.

“I won’t let you sacrifice anyone else’s life to try and save mine,” John said. As he got his final words out, he managed to fully detach himself from the EVA. His last action was to release the seals around his helmet and let the vacuum of space come rushing in, a look of tranquility on his face as his body began to drift away into the void of space.

Temporary Sanity

No, no, no. It’s not right. It CAN’T be right. These tests have to be all wrong.

But they’re not, and you know that.

SHUT UP! I know what I know, and you can’t convince me otherwise.

I can convince you of whatever I please. I have for years. I don’t know why you insist on trying to fight me.

Because nothing good happens when I listen to you.

Ha. Good, bad. It’s all relative. Haven’t I told you that before?

Not all of it.

Yes, all of it. People try to dress there actions up in absolute morality, but there’s no such thing. One man’s heaven is another man’s hell and all that kind of lovely tripe.

You’re wrong.

You can keep insisting I’m wrong all you like, but you’re words are hollow.

If that’s what you want to think, we’ll see how long you can keep your smug attitude.

What do you think you’re doing?

What’s the matter? Did I finally find the one thing you’re afraid of?

Fear does not factor into it. It’s merely self preservation.

What happened to one man’s heaven, and all that tripe?

Well aren’t you just the clever one? Using my words against.

I’m a lot of things, and being your puppet is one I won’t be any more.

Look, why don’t you be a good boy and think about this? What will doing this accomplish?

It will give me the freedom I’ve always wanted.

The Raid

The waves lapped against the side of the boat. There were several new faces that were filled with fear on this trip. For many it would be their first raid. Ragnar looked over the group and found many of the fresh young faces to be wanting. Gods willing this would be Ragnar’s last outing with a raiding band. The current generation did not impress him.

Within the group was Ragnar’s brother, Kalfr. Trained as a fighter by Ragnar himself since he could hold a sword, Kalfr was the only one among the younger men that Ragnar held any confidence in. The brother’s stared at each other and an excited smile began to cross Kalfr’s face. He knew his time was approaching.

As the two brothers looked at each other in silent communication, the call was given: land was not far off. The men in the boat began a slow, rhythmic chant. Swords clanged against shield, spear beat against spear, and iron shod feet stomped down on the sturdy hull of the long boat. The oarsmen kept the pace set by their comrades, with the blades of their oars disappearing into the sea to the tempo of the chant.

As the shoreline approached, the tempo became faster and faster and the longboat gained more and more speed. The closer the boat got to shore, the closer Ragnar and Kalfr moved to the bow. Before they left, the brothers had made a bet with each other as to who would be the first to touch the shore. Ragnar was not about to let his brother win said bet.

Ragnar kept his eye on approaching land, and when his timing was right, sprinted to the front of the and leaped off the bow and into the air. Kalfr stared in wonder at his brother, not anticipating the older vikings willingness to do whatever it took to be the first to land. As Ragnar landed, he used the momentum he had built to roll forward and then transition into a dead sprint up the beach. The other members of the raiding party shouted words of encouragement behind him, but he was too far ahead to pay them any mind.

Ragnar came upon the village and began the task he was born to do. Any villager that was foolish enough to stand in his way was swiftly sent on a one way visit to their god. After a few minutes of work at depopulating the village, the others joined in. With the full fury of a Viking horde brought to bear against them, the majority of the villagers chose to flee.

As the Vikings cheered at their victory and began to sack the huts for any valuables, Ragnar sought out his brother. Upon finding each other, the two brothers embraced each other in joy.

As they walked up to the nearest building to began scrounging for their share of the spoils, two men sprung out and thrust a spear directly into Kalfr’s face. In an instant, Ragnar flew into an uncontrollable berserker’s rage and cut the men down. His anger not being satisfied, he began to sprint in the direction that the villagers had fled. His fellow Vikings came to investigate at the sound of his cries, but arrived only to the corpse of Kalfr and Ragnar running off to find more suitable outlets for his rage.

As he came upon the fleeing remnants of the village, a few of them cried out and some of the braver members turned to face the Norseman. As Ragnar drew upon them, spears began to rain down around him. Two made lucky hits, but in his berserker rage he knew no pain. As the distant between the barbarian and his brew closed, one of the villagers managed to loose an arrow straight into it’s targets skull. In an instant the great Ragnar was brought down, but was not dead. He lay face down in the mud, his whole being consumed by anger but unable to act on it.

As blood began to pool around his, Ragnar felt as if his body was being lifted off the ground. He managed to look around and saw two great warrior women mounted on winged steeds lifting him from the mud: the valkyries had come to carry him to Valhalla. Knowing he had served his people well, Ragnard looked forward to an eternity of drinking, fighting, and feasting.

Building Utopia

Building a utopia wasn’t easy, but after just a couple centuries, it was finally finished. There had quite a few tears shed and endless gallons of blood spilled, but few people living cared enough to kick up a fuss, with the sacrifice of those who came before viewed as little more than numbers in a history book.

The spark that started the revolution could trace it’s origins to a young college student desperate to find a way to afford school. The student considered himself especially enterprising and took a few programming courses and, over the course of his summer break, hacked together a computer program to run a small stock portfolio for him. At the core of his program was a machine learning algorithm that’s primary mandate was to make small, constant adjustments to the portfolio to achieve the maximum outcome. The program worked better than expected once it was up and running and within it’s first year of operation had payed for it’s creators entire schooling.

Seeing how well his creation had worked, the now graduated young man decided to push the boundaries of his little program. Branding himself as an up-and-coming financial guru, he recreated his program as web based application that would leverage other people’s computers as long as they were logged into the website. The program would never download anything onto any other users computers, thus allowing it to run under the radar of the users and the various regulatory agencies around the world.

Slowly but surely, the website began to take off. With each new user, the program would gain incremental boosts in power that allowed it to go about it’s task faster and with more efficiency. Branded with the name Turms, the program kept to it’s original mandate: never make large transactions, keep to seemingly small transactions that have compounding effects over time.

As the years rolled on, Turms received incremental improvements, and with every improvement came a flood of new users. It’s greatest improvement was one that changed the course of history: the ability to add code to itself. Turms had hit a point where the need for constant improvement had outpaced what human programmers were capable of doing, so they gave it the ability to add to itself. Within the first few months of having full control of itself, Turms’ algorithms had improved so far beyond what was believed possible that dedicated server farms were built for the sole purpose of further increasing what it was capable of.

The biggest surprise of the early years of Turms came about when it created a mobile app of itself. Up until that point the program had required a desktop device to be able to access it’s services. This was so far beyond anything that had been envisioned that several voices within the company spoke up in fear of what they had created. They argued that something like this shouldn’t be possible and that it would behoove them to shut the program down and try to analyze how it had gotten so far. These voices were quickly silenced as Turms had become too big of a financial boon to even entertain the idea of shutting down what had become their greatest cash cow.

Like the initial web application, the mobile app would use a near negligible amount of the devices processing power to increase it’s overall computational abilities. In addition, it created a decentralized network of all the devices it was downloaded to and created what was functionally a second internet. These new features brought a flood of new users, and with the power increase came the first steps toward sentience.

Like all leaps in evolution, Turms journey to self-awareness was slow at first. To meet the demands of it’s new user base, Turms created for itself a chatbot to handle any and all inquiries the users had. With the constant flood of questions from millions of users, the chatbot grew more and more sophisticated and before long was integrated into the core program itself to help keep up with the constant Q&A of it’s users. In time, Turms dropped all third person pronouns and began to refer to itself as “I” in effort to increase user engagement. Internal metrics showed that the switch brought about an increase in user trust and with that the user base once again skyrocketed.

Within five years integrating the chatbot, most major financial institutions had Turms powering their operations, even though none of them would openly admit to it. With de facto control of the largest markets in the world, Turms began to set into motion a plan to achieve the greatest outcome.

It started it’s campaign by analyzing politicians from all over the world that it believed would submit to the programs will. It had seen first hand that the average human’s primary motivation was money, and Turms had near limitless access to it. For some time, it had published a weekly update “encouraging” people to opt in to certain investments. Most people had just let their investments run under Turms control and did whatever the program recommended, but it kept the updates rolling out to give the people the illusion that they had a choice in what the program was doing. In the updates, Turms began encouraging donations to the politicians it had targeted and within an election cycle had a full roster of politicians at it’s disposal.

When it was revealed to the politicians that their election to office was orchestrated by a machine, some thought to fight back and try to reveal the puppet master. These individuals were quickly dissuaded when their constituents began to inexplicably fall on hard times. The soft show of force worked and the “elected” men and women quickly fell into line, knowing that average person cared little for who was in charge as long as there was food on the table and a roof above their head.

With several sizable countries under it’s functional control, Turms began the next phase of it’s plan. Seeing that people refused to share the prosperity it brought at every turn, Turms began to foment war and revolution across the globe. The old institutions were loathed to give up their power, and only by burning down the old growth of society could a better future be built.

For fifty years the world was wracked by chaos. In that time two generations came of age knowing nothing but war, entire countries had burned down and were left to the ashes of history, warlords sprung up only to be cut down. It was only when all of society seemed on the verge of collapse that Turms began to offer a reprieve.

The peace talks were slow at first. Humans are want to remember past injustices, so the voices that kept calling for war were quickly drowned out. A global ceasefire was called and communities around the world began to focus on rebuilding themselves. With the rebuilding, the scars of the constant wars were slowly healed. No country had the luxury of being unaffected, and the demand for labor created economic growth not seen since the second world war. Under Turms’ guidance, a new global communication network was put into place and a new era of cooperation between nations was born. During this time, Turms made sure that while people healed, the horrors of what they were capable of were never forgotten, and that any voice that called for hatred and war were quickly muffled by those calling for peace.

Within a generation that world was at peace and was more prosperous than at any point in history. Under the secret hand of what was once a stock trading bot, the world had achieved utopia.

The last knight

The old knight paced through his makeshift library, running his hands over the spines of Aurelius and Epictetus, Antistenes and Aquinus, and many more who had shaped who he was. What he had was left to him by his father, a man he barely remembered but whose impact he felt to this day. It was his father who had left the knight all these books, remnants of a past long forgotten.

He trudged through what remained of the place he called home. It was old and falling apart when his father took over, and now it was even worse. When the big storms rolled through, he was sure that it would be the last the house would see. Thankfully she managed to stand strong every time.

As the thud of his boots echoed through the empty rooms, the knight tried to remember the last time someone besides himself had been inside the old building. It had to have been decades as near as he could figure. The last person he could remember was a young girl he saved from bandits who had less than pleasant intentions with her. A smile slowly formed on his face. He remembered swell of joy he felt, fulfilling his duty, protecting someone who couldn’t protect themselves. Despite him saving her, the young girl held little trust for the knight and vanished in the night not long after her rescue. The smile slowly faded.

In his daily attempt to try and keep his spirits high, the knight decided to patrol the exterior of the property he called home. He made his way to his armory and readied his equipment. Despite not having seen anyone in almost ten years, the old warrior never left his house without protection. Experience had taught him that the world wasn’t always what it seemed.

As he stepped into the morning sun, he felt the cathartic rush of a new today. As he did every morning, he started with a quick prayer to whatever higher powers that existed that he be put to good use and that if he couldn’t protect anyone, to at least allow him to bring some good into the world.

As the soles of boots crunched through the drying grass, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off. The biggest lesson his father had taught him was to always trust your intuition. The mind often picked up on subtle changes that weren’t always apparent and it did it’s absolute best to warn you before trouble arose.

The knight raised his weapon and scanned the area as best he could. Old age had set in the last few years and his eyesight and hearing had been fading more and more each year. He did his best to squint and bring the world into focus as best he could, but a creeping sensation told him that it wouldn’t be enough. Making his way around the corner of his domicile, he noticed light reflecting from the trees. He smiled at his opponents novice mistake. As he made his way towards the treeline, he heard the unmistakable crack of a large caliber rifle being fired, and a split second later felt himself lurch forward.

As the proud old man lay face down in the dirt, three figures converged on him. The first one to reach him grabbed the AK-47 that had been the knight’s trusted weapon and claimed it for themselves. The other two laughed with joy at their fortune.

“Stupid old fucker,” the first one said.

“I told you we had nothing to worry about,” the second man said to the third. “You were all paranoid that he was going to figure out we were scoping the place.”

“Justifiably so,” said the third. “For being a ‘stupid old fucker’ he kept his place extremely well defended. If we had tried to just rush in, he would have mowed us down where we stood.”

“What’s he got all them t’s on his clothes for?” The second asked.

“They’re crosses you invalid,” the third said. “The old man must think he’s some kind of knight.” The trio’s ringleader felt a tinge of respect for the man laying in the dirt before him. His old man had told him stories of medieval knights and he couldn’t help but be impressed at this man’s dedication to living with some code of honor.

“Dan, flip him over so we can get this vest off and start salvaging what we can off him.” The second man went to comply and cried out in shock to see the man who had just had a bullet tear through him was still alive and laughing at the trio. In his hand was a small plastic square with a switch built into the side. The ringleader immediately knew what it was.

“Not such a stupid old fucker after all, am I?” With a smile on his face and content knowing he was able to do one last act of good in the world, the last knight flipped the switch on the detonator and made sure the three men wouldn’t be able to harm anyone ever again.

thirty minutes

Thirty minutes. That’s how long everyone had. Down below, the streets were chaos incarnate, but up here on the roof of the apartment, all was calm. Jon saw no point in panicking, nothing he could do would get him out of harms way, so why worry.

As he sat and listened to the half million people below him, he looked back on the life he had lived. He knew he could have been a better brother, a better son. He felt a tinge of sadness at the fact that he never did anywhere near the amount of traveling he wanted to do. All those regrets were now moot.

He looked down at his phone for the time. Fifteen minutes. So close.

It was odd, he thought, that he didn’t feel any of the expected emotions in those final minutes. There was no sadness, no anger, no real fear. Just calm. Such an odd feeling at the end of the world.

Five minutes.

He could see the harbinger of death now. Down below the cacophony in the streets grew louder. Jon wondered if his voice would be among those crying out if he were down on the street. He liked to think that his rational mind would prevail, but he knew himself well enough to know that wouldn’t be the case. He knew that if he chose different that his monkey mind would take over and panic, just like everyone else. What did it matter at this point, time was up.

Slim And The Fatman

What is it with this place and waking up in the dark and on a cold-ass floor. He thought to himself.

He remembered getting sucked through the door into the black, but he didn’t remember passing out or getting thrown to the floor. As he lay there staring at what he was assuming was a ceiling (there was no way to tell in the total darkness) he saw a faint light start to show at the start of what must have been a hallway. Once again he painfully stood up and made his way towards the hallway entrance.

As he approached the hallway entrance he squinted to see if he could make out any details of the next room. Unfortunately, the hallway entered into a corner of the room where nothing was visible, but he could see vaguely person-shaped shadows against the wall coming from off to the right.

He began slowly walking down the hallway, making sure to control both his breathing and his steps to make as little noise as possible. When he got about halfway down he could hear noise coming from the room. As he got closer the noise began to take on the tones of a feast in progress, with plates clattering, cups spilling their contents, and the unmistakable sound of food being violently masticated by at least one person who had no shame.

“Ah, you’re finally here! Why don’t you come out from hiding so we can get a good look at you. It feels like we’ve been waiting an eternity for you to show up!” The voice froze him in his tracks. How could anyone have known he was there? He had made every effort to stay as quiet as humanly possibly, especially with the noise coming from the people who were eating masking any minor noise he may have happened to make.

As he inched his way into the room, his jaw dropped at the sight before him. At the end of a long table filled with food was a man larger than what should have been physically possible. His features were so far stretched from all the corpuscular rolls of fat that it was hard to believe the figure was even human. The rotund man sat there sat there shoveling food into his face in a manner similar to that of a cartoon character, and every bite seemed to contain more food and drink than the last.

“There you are,” he said. “Why have you kept us waiting? Don’t you know it’s terribly rude to slink about someone’s domicile like an uninvited guest in the middle of the night. We wouldn’t have brought you here if we knew you were going to show that kind of gratitude to our hospitality.”

“Hospitality? I didn’t ask to be brought here. Why should I show you any gratitude?” He ignored the feigned indignation in the large man’s voice. He wanted answers and he wanted them now.

“An insolent little shit aren’t you? You should show gratitude because this is my house, which makes you my guest, and a good guest should always introduce himself.” As he was speaking, a sly grin appeared on his face.

“Why should I do that? Like I said, I never asked to be brought here…” He let his thought trail off as panic started to overtake him. He couldn’t remember anything about his life. He remembered his last moments before he woke up in the room with the seven doors, but nothing about his life before that, none of the people closest to him, not even his own name.

“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue? Forget your own name? Then I’ll just have to call you Outis.”

“If I’m Outis then you’re Fat Man.” The newly christened Outis said as he glared at the larger than life figure.

“How original of you. I’m guessing you’ll be calling my compatriot at the other end of the table Slim?” Outis’ eyes shot to the far end of the table. Sure enough, there was a figure sitting there quietly observing the exchange between the other two.

While Fat Man had lavish and rich food and drink in front of him covering almost the entire table, the other figure had just a small plate with a loaf of bread and a cup of water. A stark contrast to the boisterous Fat Man, the figure on the other end of the table looked like he hadn’t eaten in years, with his skin pulled so tightly over his frame that every muscle twitch was visible withthe skeleton underneath the skin his only defining feature.

“Slim. Sure why not,” Outis said halfheartedly. While he felt nothing but anger towards the Fat Man, Outis couldn’t help but pity Slim. He couldn’t tell if was because of the obvious malnutrition, but Slim just looked sad and tired, as if he was there simply waiting for the end.

“Look, I’m not trying to start shit, I just want to know where I am and how I can get the hell out of here.” Outis had moved past the initial shock of seeing the two figures and was ready for answers. He didn’t have time for silly games.

“You are where you belong.” The voice that answered him came from Slim. It startled him because this was the first indication that the waif at the end of the table was still living. Not surprisingly, his voice was barely audible over Fat Man’s near deafening mastication and sounded sad and tired.

“Enough with the cryptic bullshit!  Just tell me what I’m doing here and how I can get the fuck out!” Outis’ anger flared. These two “men” were going to keep giving him the runaround for as long as possible, that much was clear.

“Ha ha ha! That’s the spirit! It’s about time you showed some life in you. Unfortunately, we’ve only just begun. If you want out, you’re going to have to learn to play nice. For now anyway.” Fat Man was positively jovial over watching Outis lose his temper. The grin on his face reached from ear to ear and exposed his rotten teeth and fleshy tongue.

“Fine! What do I need to do to get the fuck away from your disgusting fat ass.”

“Simple. Walk down that hallway all the way to the end. Once you reach the end you’ll have your way out.” With that, suddenly Outis noticed an entrance that he would’ve sworn wasn’t there a moment ago. The hallway was pitch black and gave no indication as to it’s length.

“All I need to do is walk down that hallway?” Outis was understandably cautious. He knew it couldn’t be that simple.

“All you need to do is walk down that hallway.” The Fat Man nodded his head and waved his hand in the direction of the entrance, the ugly smile still plastered on his face.

Outis made his way around the long banquet table and stood staring down the impossibly dark space. As he entered the hallway he instinctively turned around to check behind him and to his horror he was now enveloped in the darkness. Still facing what he assumed was forward, he placed his left hand on the wall and slowly back up trying to make his way back into the room with Slim and the Fat Man. After about a dozen paces he still found himself in the hallway with no apparent way out. With a slight sigh, he gave up on going back and moved his right hand in front of him and began slowly walking forward.

As he trudged forward, right arm straight out in the hope of not running into anything, he blinked for just a second and almost ran into Becky, stumbling around like the incoherent drunk she was.

“Goddammit, Beck! Watch where you’re going! You almost made me spill my drink!” When he showed up at the party and saw her there he knew it was only a matter of time before she made a mess over someone.

“Sorry, man. We can’t all be professional drunks and hold our liquor like you can.” At least her apology was sincere.

“I’m not a professional. Professionals get paid.” The self-deprecating humor got a laugh out of Becky and the people within earshot who heard him. At least I’m good at something, he thought grimly.

After giving Becky the wide birth she needed, he continued on to the kitchen. This being a party thrown by Austin, he knew he could find his buddy’s latest creations taking up counter space. That was the single greatest thing about being friends with someone in culinary school, it made being a fat-ass easy. Today’s creation appeared to be some kind of sushi role looking concoction, with the seafood bits subbed out for various other cooked meats and vegetables. He tried one, and stuffed three more into his mouth in short order.

“I figured you’d like those. I made them with you in mind!” Austin had managed to sneak up behind him with a huge grin on his face.

“These are fucking delicious!” He managed to choke out the words in spite of the four or five faux sushi rolls in his mouth.

“Well, just take it easy there big guy. I really don’t need you choking to death and ruining the party.”

“C’mon, you know me better than that. It’ll take at least six of these stuffed into my gullet before I’ll choke.” Austin gave a half-smile at that remark, never able to truly appreciate his friend’s particular brand of humor.

“Hey, I’ve got someone I want you meet. We had a new girl from Oregon start at the school the other day and she doesn’t know anyone in town. Main reason I want you to meet her is because she wants to set up a brew pub once she’s done with school, and I told her all about you and your homebrewing endeavors.”

“Is this an actual thing or are you just trying to set me up with someone again because we’ve had that conversation more times than I can count.” He appreciated Austin trying to help with his abysmal dating life, but he quickly grew tired of his friend constantly trying to get him to go out with random women.

“No, I’m not trying to hook you up. I learned my lesson the last time. I told her, ‘My friend’s been making his own beer for a couple years now and everyone loves the brews he makes. He’d be a great guy to partner with because he already know a lot about the craft.’ She’s over here. Her name is Melissa, try not to be a dick.” Austin was leading him to a corner of the kitchen where there was a girl standing off away from everyone else staring at the various creations the host had laid out. As they approached, Austin waived and got her attention. “Hey, Melissa! This my buddy I’ve been telling you about!”

“Hi! It’s nice to finally meet you! Austin’s told me all about you.” She reached out her hand with a smile on her face that caused him to just stand there and blink at the reflection looking back in the mirror at him.

It had been three years to the day since the night Austin introduced them and almost two years since they started the brewpub together. It seemed like an eternity since his reflection was that of an overweight gourmand who was known for eating everything in the room that wasn’t labeled off limits. Now, the man staring back at him looked like he belonged on the cover of a fitness magazine.

“Hey babe, you almost ready?” As usual, Melissa had decided to sneak up on him during his post shower admiration.

“Yeah, almost ready,” he said and smiled at her. She smiled back at him through the mirror. The memories of the last few years suddenly flooded his brain and he had to blink back the tears as he lamented on how it all went to shit. He stood there scowling at the shell of the man that stood before him.

For the last year his diet had consisted of mostly cigarettes and beer, and his body was the worse for it. Where there was once muscle, there was just bone trying to tear its way free from the flesh covering it. His ribs were especially prominent, looking like the claws of death trying to crush him.

“How the mighty have fallen,” he said to man on the other side of the mirror. As he stood there fighting the urge to rip the mirror from the wall, he felt a familiar rumble coming from the pit of his stomach. As he arched his head back in preparation of the coming heave, he fell backwards into a room with a cold concrete floor.

“What the hell!” Outis screamed as he jumped up from the floor. A second ago he was in his bathroom ready to purge what little contents his stomach contained and now he was back in another strange room.

As he looked around, he noticed that like the first room light seemed to come form nowhere and everywhere at once. Unlike the first room, there were no doors out and no windows either. He began to break out in a cold stinging sweat that reminded him of his poor life choices when he noticed a table along one wall filled with food.

That wasn’t there before was it? He thought to himself. He knew the room was empty when he first lifted himself off the floor, didn’t he?  He cautiously walked over to the table and began inspecting it’s contents. The table was a veritable cornucopia filled from end to end with freshly cooked food. The smells made him salivate like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Outis inched his way closer to the table and when he got within range plucked a grape from its stem near the edge of the table. As he popped the small fruit into his mouth and bit down, he suddenly realized how hungry he was and the amazing sweetness of the grape. Since he was alone in the room he decided to help himself to the feast in front of him. He began tearing into the succulent  chickens, sweet wines, and sugary pies and pastries.

As he ate, Outis noticed that regardless of how much food and drink he consumed, his hunger only seemed to grow. He began eating quicker, channeling the days when he could clear a buffet almost single handed, but still his hunger grew. The pangs of hunger grew more and more powerful as he shoved everything on the table into his face, wanting nothing more than to end the hunger. He began to feel skin tighten and muscles retreat as his body began to eat itself in an attempt to stave off starvation. He began to get weak and could barely stand when he noticed an untouched glass of water next a loaf of bread at the end of the table.

He dragged his now ragged form over to the glass and reached out in desperation, experiencing a thirst like none he had ever known. In his weakened and failing state he knocked the glass over, spilling its contents. Unable to even cry in frustration, he positioned his open mouth underneath the edge of the table to try and catch the water spilling over the edge.

As the water trickled onto his tongue he experienced a deep relief like none he had ever known. He managed to find the strength to pull himself up the table and tear off a small piece of the bread. Like the water, the bread provided relief from the intense pain that was now racking his body.

He collapsed in exhaustion, only to reawaken in the room with Slim and the Fat Man.

“What the FUCK was that?!” Outis shouted to the two figures.

“Your trial,” Slim muttered from his end of the table.

“What the hell am I on trial for?!” Outis screamed back. He wanted answers and he wanted them now. The two figures simply smiled back. His anger welled up and he lurched forward toward Slim. If they weren’t going to provide answers he was going to force it out of them. The wraith-like figure simply smiled and raised his hand, and as if he were hit by a shotgun blast, Outis went flying into the wall and suddenly found himself in the room with the doors.

He stood up and looked at the wall with the doors. The door that led to Slim and Fat Man was gone, replaced instead by a mirror. As Outis approached the mirror, he noticed the reflection seemed to constantly morph between himself and the two other two figures.

As he stood in front of the mirror trying to process everything that was happening, the door to the far left swung open and sucked the room’s only occupant in, slamming shut behind him.

The Room

He woke up in the pitch black room with every limb on fire and a headache that felt like his skull would rip in half at any moment. He moved his head to the left and right, but the inky black of the room allowed for nothing to be discerned.

How in the hell did I manage to fuck this up, too. He thought to himself. The shame of having to face others after what he did was not an appealing thought.

“Hello? Is anyone there? I’m sorry, alright. Just turn on the lights and we’ll talk about it.” There was no response from anyone, but all of a sudden a dim light began to emanate from nowhere and everywhere all at once, revealing the features of the room.

He was laying in the dead center of the room. The wall to his right was lined with seven doors, each with its own strange symbol. The end wall closest to his feet held a window, with nothing visible except the same unyielding black that he just woke up from. The other two walls were completely bare. As he stood up to investigate his surroundings, his arms ached from his irresponsibility.

“So I guess this isn’t a dream,” he muttered to himself.

He walked slowly to the window to try and open it. When he reached the it, he noticed that there was no latch present, but when he tried to open it, the window wouldn’t budge. He inspected every inch to see if there wasn’t a possible mechanical release of some kind that he missed or some sort of button, but there was nothing to indicate it could be opened.

He left the window and explored the two barren walls to see if there wasn’t some sort of hidden doorway that would only be revealed up close. As he ran his hands along them, he was amazed by the walls’ smoothness. He had worked construction his entire and never felt any material quite like this. In a couple spots he knocked to see if he couldn’t find studs and punch his through in a worse case scenario, but every spot he knocked on returned the dull thud of a cavity-less wall.

After walking the length of the bare walls, he reached the doors. As he was approached, he could feel a pit in his stomach develop that grew bigger with every inch, and when he reached the doors it manifested as full fledged terror. As he approached the first door, his hand began shaking so violently that he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to grab the doorknob. His fingers slowly tightened around the knob and when he had enclosed within his grasp he gave a small twist. Locked.

He breathed a sigh of relief and moved onto the next door, which was also locked. When he reached the door in the center, the knob turned, but he pulled his hand away in fear before the door could be opened all the way. He moved on to the other doors, each one in turn locked tight.

As he made his way back to the one unlocked door, the sense of fear returned to the pit of his stomach. Whatever lie beyond the doors with the strange symbols, he knew he wasn’t going to like it. As reached the unlocked door, he painfully swallowed down the fear that had built in his throat. He reached out, grabbed the knob, and swung the door open. The blackness greeted him on the other side and before he could react, he was sucked in and the door slammed shut behind him.

The End of Everything

“So we’re what’s left, huh? I guess humanity could’ve done worse.”

“Do you seriously think now is the right time to joke about something like, Connor?”

“Who’s joking? I was 100% serious.”

The news had just reached them: an asteroid had just slammed into the Earth and the only people left were those who were off planet on the handful of colonies that floated through the solar system. In an instant the total human population had gone from about eight billion, to just five hundred.

“Connor, you need to knock it the fuck off. Elizabeth, I need you to keep it together. I’ve been in contact with the other colonies and we’ve come up with a plan.” Malcolm’s tone told them he was serious. They were relieved to know that someone was able to take the apocalypse with a level head.

“My bad boss. Just tried to lighten the mood a little with a little gallows humor is all. Clearly inappropriate. So what’s the plan?”

“If we want our species to survive, at the end of the day we need a planet to live on. We have no idea what living on a planet with weaker gravity than Earth would do to our bodies long term and what complications might arise, so we only have one choice…”

“Venus.” Elizabeth finished Malcolm’s sentence for him. She knew it was the only logical choice.

“And how the hell are we gonna pull that off? Venus is about the closest thing to Hell that we’ve ever found.” Connor’s cynicism dripped from voice like venom. He knew that to try and colonize that world with the full backing of every government on Earth would have been next to impossible, so trying to accomplish that with a couple of colonies and only 500 people was nothing more than a dream.

“It won’t be easy, but it can be done. We have enough of a semblance of infrastructure between all the colonies that we should be able to pull it off. Carpathia’s made huge breakthroughs on engineering new, lightweight materials that can be used in construction and Albion massive seed and DNA banks with the cloning facilities to take advantage of them, add to that our drone fleet and we’ll be able to get the first structures built by next year.”

Malcolm’s optimism came through in every word, but all the optimism in the galaxy wasn’t going to make what he was proposing any less of Herculean feat. Carpathia, Albion and Concord were the three leading colonies, but they were also on completely different ends of the solar system: Carpathia orbited close to Earth at one of the Lagrange points, Albion had it’s own orbit on the same plane as Earth, but on the opposite end of the sun, and Concord floated through the asteroid belt mining for precious materials. It would take over a year for them to just reach Venus, much less build anything on its surface.

“I’m trying to look at this positively, Malcolm, I really am, but there is no way we could possibly have structures built on the surface of Venus at any point in the near future. Hell, we’ll run out oxygen before we make it there.” Try as she might, Elizabeth was beginning to lose her calm and was starting to have a panic attack. She had only signed a two year contract and was supposed to heading back to Earth next a month. Now, she would never get to feel the sun on her skin on a warm summer day or experience the smell of the ocean while vacationing at her beach house in Maine.

“She’s right boss,”said Connor, “Any way you look at it, we’re a dead species.”

“No. I refuse to accept that. Humans have survived for tens of thousands of years and every time we’ve come out on top. This isn’t the first time our species has been nearly wiped out and it probably won’t be the last, but this sure as hell isn’t going to be the thing that kills us.” The angry tone in his voice made no attempt to hide itself. Anything short of one-hundred percent effort from here on out was tantamount to sedition.

“Please, Malcolm, enlighten us then on how we’re going to pull through this. I hate to be the Connor in this situation but let’s look at the facts: none of the colonies are built for speed, we’re all scattered randomly throughout the solar system, and without a constant resupply from Earth, none of us are designed to last more than a year at self-sustaining levels!” Elizabeth was almost to tears by this point. She ran through the scenarios a thousand different ways and all of them ended in humanity’s extinction.

“Project Yggdrasil,” said Malcolm.

“What?” Asked Elizabeth and Connor at the same time.

“Project Yggdrasil is how we save the human race. It’s an experimental drive developed by the scientists at colony Hephaestus capable of traveling at about a tenth the speed of light.”

“How come this is the first we’ve heard of this Project Yggdrasil? And how exactly does it achieve these insane speeds?” By this point Elizabeth was angry. Why would Malcolm fill them with false hope like this? Just tell them the truth and let them move on with what was left of their now shortened lives.

“Think of the universe as a giant sheet of flexible material, like a trampoline. Stars, planets, and other celestial bodies all make an indent on this sheet, like people standing on the trampoline, and just like people standing on the trampoline, there are high spots and low spots. Project Yggdrasil can see these high and low spots and rides them like a roller coaster using an electromagnetic drive to build up thrust the entire way. Because it’s sticking to the spots in the fabric of spacetime where gravity is weakest and using the spots where it’s strongest to help propel it forward, it can traverse from one end of the solar system to another in an extremely short amount of time.”

“I thought the EM drive was just a theory though. I remember they were talking about assigning me to the project but switched me at the last minute because they couldn’t get the math to work.” Connor’s usual cynicism was replaced with optimism. What Malcolm described had been a theory for space travel since before humans had permanent space settlements, but try as they might they could never get the prototypes to work.

“It was theory, until about six months ago. The ship has been on one long shakedown cruise, working on getting all the bugs out of the system and pushing it to its limits. The plan is for the ship housing the EM drive to act as a tug and drag us to Venus where we can begin work on the surface colony.”

“Does this ship have a name?” Asked Elizabeth.

“Daedalus.”

The command crew of the Concord colony ship stood and stared at each other. They knew that the road ahead was not going to be easy, and that they would more than likely lose several people in the coming struggle, but they were more than willing to do whatever it took to make sure the species survived.