From the author: The silliest version of the apocalypse, in tight leather pants. Originally published in After The Fall, edited by Alex Davis (2014) and SKEW, edited by Ben Lehman (2013) .
Zack Leven is starting to feel like a compulsive gambler who can't bear to push himself from the table without one last dice roll. Then another.
So far, this Sim isn't going too badly. The Receptionist looks up at Zack as he plucks a hard candy out of the tin on her desk. It's butterscotch. Zack unwraps it, and tries to slouch suggestively.
Zack pauses the Sim to adjust the sun 45 degrees west. The light streams behind her, and he pumps up the contrast. The grey cubicles glow white. He's never noticed how much gold there is highlighting her auburn hair.
The Receptionist smiles, and then slouches down over her paperback. They slouch together. A tendril curls across her cheek. So much gold.
This Sim isn't going badly at all. Not perfect, but close enough. It's something. Zack punches in the code to lock it down.
He's not supposed to be able to lock down a Sim. That he can lock down a Sim at all is a colossal fuckup. And, Zack thinks, if no one else at TerraComp discovered the bug, it couldn't affect functionality. And, Zack thinks, if his superior hacking skills were going to be wasted at helpdesk, how could he be expected to resist exploiting code vulnerabilities?
It's like a tin pot of hard candies.
The Receptionist glances up at Zack from her book. This is the moment he's been waiting for. She's going to talk to him. He knew it. He's always known it. He pauses the Sim to tweak the color levels. Have her eyes always been this green?
He's dazzled, white and gold and green. Suddenly, he can't even remember whether he locked the Sim. Did he lock the Sim? His heart rate spikes as he punches in the code with clumsy fingers and drags the whole file onto his flash drive.
How could he, Zack thinks, possibly be expected to resist exploiting this code vulnerability when the possibilities all lay before him, waiting? Zack's so excited, he forgets to slouch suggestively. He leans in towards the Receptionist.
Time slows down as the Receptionist meets Zack's eyes, parts her lips.
"Can I help you with something?" she asks, flatly, and sighs.
"Yes," he says. "No." Then he feels incredibly stupid. He slams his hand down on END PROGRAM.
Zack stands for a moment, watching the heart rate monitor blink at him with a pattern like laughter. He has no idea what time it is. He yanks off the VR helmet and rips out a few stray hairs caught in the visor. He feels like screaming. Instead, he whispers, "Fuck."
Zack looks both ways before sneaking out of the supply closet. Everything in the office is grey, aside from the giant plastic potted ferns in all four corners, which are grey-green. Zack wishes he could adjust the brightness or contrast in reality. He's never been particularly good at adjusting himself.
Down the aisle of cubicles, some of the security team runs in circles. Some are shaking empty soda cans; others hold their heads in their hands. The rest grope around like zombies in their VR helmets.
A hand catches Zack's shoulder as he turns to head back to helpdesk. It's his Manager. He is as grey as the cubicle walls, and his necktie looks wet. "Where have you been?" he asks.
"Right here," Zack blurts. His first impulse in these situations is to lie. He has no idea how long it took him to run forty-seven Sims. His Manager looks at him tiredly, so Zack corrects himself. "I went on a coffee break," he says.
"How many calls have come in?" his Manager asks.
"Oh," Zack says. "The usual." His scalp is tingling where the helmet caught his hair. He really wants to smooth down his hair, but instead he shifts his weight.
"Really?" his Manager asks. "Good. Maybe it's just a glitch."
In the background, someone from security says something about inconclusive byte orders. It doesn't sound hopeful. Someone else says something about a registry key.
"A glitch?" Zack asks.
"A worm's just deleted Mountain Dew," his Manager says. He jerks his chin towards the Security team. "We have a situation here."
"A worm?" Zack asks.
"Look, Zack," his Manager says, then pinches the bridge of his nose. "There's some kind of something that just started shooting its payload all through the firmware. Shit's disappearing."
"Shit's what?" Zack asks.
"Disappearing." His Manager snaps his fingers. "Like that. But maybe it's just a glitch." He calls over to the Security Manager about the count. So far, it's pineapples, Mountain Dew, and tube socks.
In the background, someone from security says something about reformatting the partition. It doesn't sound hopeful. Someone else says something about reinstalling the OS.
Zack wonders if he left any hairs in the VR visor. It's a spare so no one would look for it, would they? He stuffs his hands in his pockets to find his flash drive. Wallet, cell phone, 10mW green laser pointer, Ethernet loopback jack, multi-tool, lip balm. No flash drive. He left it in the VR helmet, along with several strands of DNA evidence. His scalp tingles and he breaks into a sweat.
"You OK?" his Supervisor asks. "Usually you'd remind me how your hacking skills are wasted at helpdesk."
"I'm not feeling well," Zack says.
"You look as grey as the cube walls," his Supervisor says. "And you're wet."
"I think I need to go home," Zack says.
In the background, someone from security says something about critical system errors. It doesn't sound hopeful. Someone else says something about a locked Sim.
"Sorry, guy," his Manager answers. "We can't spare you today."
"I'm not feeling well," Zack repeats. "At all."
"Unless you are projectile vomiting," his Manager says. "I need you here."
Grey, wet Zack looks at his grey, wet Manager. "Fine," he says. He holds up his palms, realizes they are shaking, then quickly puts them back down. "I'm just going to lie down in the supply closet for a few minutes."
He feels like screaming. Instead, he whispers, "Fuck."
Pineapples deleted first, both fresh and canned. Then Mountain Dew and tube socks.
While Zack rescues his flash drive and wipes the spare VR helmet clean, the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan and abridged editions of the Oxford English Dictionary get scrubbed.
By the time he settles back at his terminal, dhol players, Edo-period Bunjinga paintings, HEPA filtration vacuum cleaner bags, avocadoes, electric golf carts, and the entire Order Squamata disappear.
Zack works hard for a few hours. He explains viruses and executable files, exploits and update protocols to literature professor and bhangra dancers, guacamole enthusiasts and amateur herpetologists. He speaks slowly and clearly, watching his Supervisor in his peripheral vision.
By 3pm competitive bodybuilders, rolling bascule bridges, the Buffalo Museum of Science, snooker cues, silica gel kitty litter, and the flags of Luxembourg were gone. When the cat ladies begin calling, Zack decides he needs a coffee break.
"I'm going to get coffee," he says loudly. "If there's any coffee left in the world."
He's barely audible above all the calls. Down the aisle of cubicles, all of the security team runs in circles.
"Hey," the Receptionist calls to Zack as he passes the front desk. "You disappearing?" As she says that last statement, she clamps her hand over her mouth and giggles.
Zack looks at her. She talked to him. He knew it. He's always known it. Her hair is less gold and her eyes are less green. He stuffs his hands in his pockets to find his flash drive. Wallet, cell phone, 10mW green laser pointer, Ethernet loopback jack, multi-tool, lip balm, flash drive. He digs a sharp edge of it into his palm for courage. He tries to slouch suggestively.
"No," he says. "I'm going to get some coffee. Do you want some?"
She holds up a mug. It has a lip print on one side. "Have some," she says. "Thanks." She slouches down over her paperback. Over her shoulder, he sees the screensaver on her monitor; it shows puppies and kittens tumbling in a field of wildflowers.
The wildflowers are too bright to be real.
Zack presses the flash drive harder into his palm. "I mean," he says. "Good coffee."
She glances back at Zack. "Sure," she says. "OK. How about a mocha? Non-fat."
"No problem," Zack answers. Zack's so excited, he forgets to slouch suggestively. He leans in towards the Receptionist. There are so many things he wants to ask her. He wonders what she thinks of the name Zack, if the first one is a boy. Lily, maybe, if it's a girl. He thinks maybe he should bring her a puppy. Or a kitten.
Time slows down as the Receptionist meets Zack's eyes, parts her lips.
"Uh, thanks," she says. She frowns a little. "Do you, uh, want some money?"
"Yes," he says, then quickly, "No."
She waves and bends back to her book.
Zack walks away quickly, feeling a little stupid and a little like screaming. Instead, he waits until he's outside the building and whispers, "Fuck."
Gestalt Fair Trade Shade Grown Roasters and Espresso Bar doesn't hire the cutest baristas in the neighborhood -- they hire the second cutest baristas. None are as cute as the receptionist. But still, Zack frequents the place because of the semi-hot baristas, tolerating the smoky burned espresso in the lattes, the bad service, and the long lines.
And it's only three blocks from TerraComp.
As soon as Zack hits the street, asphalt deletes. It ebbs from the street like low tide hitting the curb. Under Zack's sneakers, kernels of the original cobblestone emerge, dazzling with residual water drops. He walks faster. A woman in a grey business suit stops short in front of Zack, and he plows into her.
She rocks on her high heels on the uneven ground. "Did you see that?" she asks.
Zack misunderstands her, thinking she asked him if he did that, but she wobbles away before he can answer towards other people, asking them, "Did you see that?"
Zack hurries towards his coffee shop.
Queues haven't disappeared, Zack notes. The line snakes out into the front patio. While he waits, he listens to customers in the long line speculate about the disappearances.
One lady says that she thinks it's the war of the worlds. "Aliens," she says. "They're vaporizing the small things in order to upset societal infrastructure so the presidents and prime ministers will declare martial law and marshal us all into camps operated by the aliens." What they wanted, she didn't know. "Maybe to fatten us up and use us grazing animals, except some of the women," she says. "They'd experiment on the women." She waggles her eyebrows when she says that, to no one in particular.
"No," counters a man waiting for a half-caf mochachino. "It's Armageddon." He points up. "Wars, today," he says, "are fought by trade agreements and embargos. God is simply blockading humanity from decadent items until we convert back into Christian soldiers." He goes silent, slurping off the whipped cream topping his drink.
The barista with the purple glasses takes his order. "Whip on the non-fat mocha?" she asks.
He doesn't know. Would she want whipped cream? He didn't ask. He didn't think to ask. What would she want? He doesn't know. He stuffs his hand in his pocket and feels for the flash drive. There's no VR helmet here; he can't run the Sim to see the outcome of whip verses no whip.
"Could I get some on the side?" he asks.
The fake redhead works the espresso bar. "We're out of whip," she calls. "Mochachino got the last."
"Totally?" Purple Glasses asks.
"I don't have time to whip more," Fake Redhead answers.
The third barista, the one from Sweden or Norway with the pointy tits, sits on a stool by the cash register. She doesn't seem to be doing anything at all.
"Could someone make some more?" Zack asks. He looks at the Swedish or Norwegian one with pleading in his eyes. She just sits there. He pulls a twenty from his wallet and stuff it in the tip jar by her elbow. "It's really important."
Zack wonders if she noticed him jam the twenty in the jar. He can't get it out and deposit it again. He is considering tossing in another twenty when spandex goes. Sweden/Norway's tits immediately drop an inch lower and seem distinctly less pointy. Zack's boxer shirts also slump down from his waist, held up only by the fact that he's standing with his thighs together.
"What was that?" Sweden/Norway asks, finally animate.
"Elastic? Maybe Lycra," Zack answers. "Elastic's gone." He realizes he probably should move out of line, but knows the second he takes a step, his boxers will creep down. He squeezes his legs in a bit tighter and tries to act casual.
"Order's up," Purple Glasses says to Zack.
"What was that?" Sweden or Norway asks again. Zack realizes the weave of her skirt now has long, worm-like holes in it -- only the cotton weaving is left. He can see the triangle of her drooping pink panties right through them.
Then she's gone. So are the other baristas. A pair of purple eyeglasses clatters to the floor. Two cups stand on the counter, no whipped cream.
"Fuck," Zack says.
The woman says, "Aliens."
The man with the mochachino and the last of the whip looks up and says, "It's Armageddon."
Zack grabs his twenty back out of the tip jar and shoves it in a pocket. He slides one hand into the waistband of his cargo pants to hike up his boxers, tucks the mocha and his coffee under the other arm, and waddles outside.
Things delete faster now around him. The stained glass windows from St. Something Cathedral across the street, the ratty bike frame from below a speeding courier who hangs in the air for a moment like a hurdler then drops painfully. Parking meters, wrought iron balconies, the aglet tips off Zack's shoelaces, and bus drivers, judging by the overturned busses farting steam wistfully into the air.
At that moment, Zack's pants disappear.
His wallet, cell phone, 10mW green laser pointer, Ethernet loopback jack, multi-tool, lip balm, and flash drive tumble onto the sidewalk. A light wind catches the twenty dollar bill before it falls, and it glides out into the street. Zack's boxer shorts sag around his waist and flap around his skinny legs. He watches the bill float away and land by the crashed bike courier.
The courier looks up briefly from accessing his road rash and catches the twenty in his hand. He looks at Zack and crumples the bill into a ball, and tosses it back to Zack. He shrugs, as if saying what can you do?
The bill lands by Zack's cell phone. He looks at it. There's some blood on the bill, so he kicks it back to the courier. "Why don't you keep it, bro?"
The courier salutes at Zack. "Maybe I'll cab it to a hospital," he says. He smiles, showing a broken front tooth. He looks at Zack holding up his boxers, and then looks across the street. He points to a store. "Dude, I bought some pants there once."
Zack looks to where the courier is pointing, one of those small boutiques where nothing has a price tag. He turns back to say something to the courier, but he's gone. All that's left is his bike helmet and the bloody twenty rolling its way down the street.
Zack bends over, sets down the coffee cups, and tries to gather his gadgets from the street. He realizes that he can't hold all his stuff and the two cups of coffee, and keep his boxers up. He thinks briefly of the receptionist. The non-fat mocha is cooling quickly. He imagines walking into TerraComp in his boxers with an oily, cold non-fat mocha. He imagines her pulling back the lid and asking about the whipped cream. He feels like screaming. Instead, he says, "Fuck."
Inside the boutique, the salesman is mournfully petting a shirt. He holds it up as Zack shuffles in. "It's ruined," he says, threading his fingers through the holes in the fabric. He turns to look at Zack and drops the shirt. "Honey," he says. "You look a fright." Then he notices Zack with one hand down his shorts and the other clutching a wallet, flash drive and coffee cup. The salesman raises an eyebrow.
"My underwear," Zack feels compelled to explain. "It's falling down. Lycra. Elastic. Like the shirt."
"Uh huh," says the salesman. He tries not to stare at Zack's boxers, and then stares meaningfully. "What can I do for you, honey?"
"I need some pants," Zack says.
The salesman holds his head in his hands, and says, "Most of my good stock is ruined." Then he changes, looks up brightly, claps his hands. "But leather! What about leather?"
"Leather pants?" Zack asks.
"Absolument," the salesman says. "You'll look magnificent." He grabs Zack by the elbow and steers him into a dressing room. "Now just hold on," he says. "Don't go anywhere." As he says that last statement, he clamps his hand over his mouth and giggles, then closes the door of the dressing room. "What size are you? A 34?" he calls to Zack.
"I'm a 36," Zack answers.
The salesman flops a stack of fragrant leather pants over the top of the stall. "I only have 34s," he says. "But try, try, try."
Zack tugs on the first pair. They fit tightly, and bunch his saggy boxer shorts in an uncomfortable puff. He sighs, pulls off the pants and before he can overthink it, his boxer shorts. Then he sucks in a breath and pulls up the leather pants.
"Do you need any help in there?" the salesman asks.
"I'm fine," Zack says. He can barely bend his knees. He tries to push this out of his mind and thinks about the receptionist. He walks out of the dressing room stiffly.
The salesman screams a little when he sees Zack. "Genius," he says. "Magnificent." He claps again, and then says, "Now go." He points to the outside, and then places his hand on his heart. "My gift. While they last."
Zack thanks him, for the pants and, he realizes, for the love and kindness. He has nothing to offer back. Instead, he tries to wedge his wallet and flash drive into a pocket.
"As they get warmer, they give a little," the salesman says. As he says that last statement, he clamps his hand over his mouth and giggles, then slaps Zack on the ass. "Isn't that true of everything?"
Zack's new leather pants squeak as he walks the last three blocks to back to TerraComp's main entrance. It's closer than the employee entrance and Zack is in a hurry. He doesn't look around, but he can tell more things are deleting around him. His thoughts even seem to be disappearing -- he only wants to get back to work and deliver the mocha.
The security guard isn't at his desk, and the magnetic keycard reader is gone. Zack pushes through the door. The framed print of Starry Night is missing; the paint is a darker blue where it had hung. The reception desk stands where it always has, but the Receptionist is not there.
"Hello?" Zack calls.
Zack walks around inside TerraComp. In the background, Zack hears only the squeak of his pants, the drone of the fluorescent lights, and the air filtration system. It doesn't sound hopeful.
Zack feels like screaming. Instead, he says, "Fuck," and sits down in the Receptionist's chair. He sets down the cold non-fat mocha.
He holds his head in his hands, but sees the tin bucket of hard candy. He sits in the Receptionist's chair and unwraps a butterscotch to console himself. Sucking the candy, he spins around to face the wall of windows that look south onto the city.
Zack pokes at the windowpane. Under his finger the world is erased, byte by byte -- garbage trucks, baseball diamonds, penthouse apartments, the English ivy that hugs the bare city walls.
Zack watches a line of policemen in riot gear attempt to quell a mob, looters holding objects that immediately disappear, leaving them posed in an accidental embrace. He sees people by St. Something cathedral on their knees, arms towards the sky. He sees people holding onto one another for dear life.
Even more deletions now: cognitive dissonance, dialectics, self-consciousness, fear.
He turns back towards the receptionist's desk, pulls himself in. Next to the candy bucket, next to the mocha, is her half full mug of coffee, the porcelain marked with a wide oval of pink lipstick. Puppies and kittens continue their eternal tussling on the screen. It looks so beautiful to him now. The wildflowers are too bright to be real; the sun in the pixelated sky is so gold. So gold.
Zack wipes his hands on the knees of his leather pants and reaches into the back pocket for his flash drive. That Sim wasn't perfect, but close enough. It's something. Something. He unhooks the drive; the USB unit extends like a claw.
Then the flash drive disappears.
Zack pulls in his knees. He wraps his arms around himself. The leather warms under his breath.
He doesn't know how long he sits there. But when he looks up again, the cubicles are dazzlingly white.
Zack picks up the Receptionist's mug and swivels back towards the windows. There isn't much left, but it is so fucking beautiful.
The coffee in the mug is still warm to the touch. It's warmer than the mocha. Zack looks at the lip print on the side, such a bright, crisp pink. He looks at the print, at the creases and crinkles like they are a language he alone knows how to read.
Zack holds up the mug, matches his mouth over the lipstick print and takes a long sip.