WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD - FLASH FICTION FROM NATURE FUTURES

05 November 2014

By Sam Eades

futures-2-cover


When Destiny Calls

The orange light winked.

Michael stared at the device in his hand, nonplussed. The orange light winked again. Curious, Michael raised his right arm and shook the device gently, as if to dislodge a truculent spider from its surface.

Unperturbed, the orange light winked.

The device, similar in size and shape to a walkie-talkie, featured three lights in a neat row at one end. At the other, the on–off switch sat firmly in the ‘off’ position. The light in the middle of the row was the one currently perplexing the device’s owner. It winked with a reasonable hint of orange.

Gingerly holding the device at arm’s length in front of him, Michael picked his way across the office floor. The carpet was largely hidden under piles of paper engaged in a futile battle with entropy, and his feet made a rustling noise as he unsuccessfully tried to navigate a clear path. He plonked himself into his office chair and pushed to one side the tide of paper vying for his attention on the desk. He set the device down and regarded it in the same way a cat regards a mouse — although he couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that he might not be the feline in this relationship.

The orange light winked.

Michael did the only thing he could think of: he flicked the on–off switch to ‘on’.

The effect was immediate — the orange light stopped winking. Michael could feel the tension in his shoulders subside. He leant back in his chair and ran his fingers through his unruly mop of curly hair.

“Hello?” The clipped tones of an elderly male voice cut through the silence.

Michael started, and scanned the office.

Nothing.

No one.

“Hello? Is this thing on?”

Michael shook his head in a bid to dislodge the disembodied words from his mind. I’ve been overdoing it, he thought.

“Is there anybody there?” The voice was getting testy.

A red light lit up on the device.

“Has the red light come on?” the voice asked.

In spite of himself, Michael nodded, although he wasn’t entirely certain why.

“Look. If you’re there and can hear me, and the blasted red light has come on, can you pick the paramunicator up and bang it down on a hard surface several times?”

With more than a little trepidation, Michael reached out for the device. It felt warm to his touch. He picked it up.

“That’s it! Careful”

The voice seemed to be coming from all around him as well as from the device. Michael cautiously held the box up to his ear. It seemed to be emitting a very gentle hum.

“BANG IT!!!”

Michael jumped and the device slipped from his fingers. It hit the floor, bounced sideways and nestled itself in a collection of unpaid bills. Michael stood up in a bid to retrieve it, but the device had other ideas. It emitted a slight screech and the red light went off. The hum rose in pitch and volume, and the air above the device began to fizz. A vague mist began to form and rapidly coalesced into the blurry image of a man’s head. He had straggly grey hair and an unkempt beard. His lined face suggested reasonable age, but his eyes, which quickly sought out and fixed on Michael, suggested his faculties had not yet dimmed.

“Ah. There you are, my boy,” the image said. “I can see you now. Sorry about the confusion. The A250 model is a bit unreliable.”

“Wha—?” was about all Michael could manage.

“Don’t stand there gaping. I haven’t got all day. Regardless of the A250’s predilection for cuttin—” The image wavered and the white noise of static filled the room.

“—does then just bang it on the floor.” The image paused. “Did I just cut out?” he asked pensively. “Hah! Typical. Look, as I was saying. Even if the wretched thing doesn’t cut out, these links have a finite lifespan. Now. Did the orange light wink?”

Michael nodded, the power of speech still seeming somewhat elusive.

“Yes. Yes. Always does. No one knows why. Still, all’s well … eh, my boy?”

Michael reached behind him for the arm of his chair, and gripped it tightly as he lowered himself into the security of its foam embrace. “Who—? What—?”

“Quite so, quite so,” the disembodied head agreed. “Now. To work. Can I just confirm your name?”

“Um, Michael. Michael Trye.”

“Excellent. Now listen, Mr Trye, I’m your pandimensional careers adviser, and I’m here to tell you that a unique opportunity has arisen that you can’t afford to miss. Of course, when I say can’t afford, I suppose I mean can’t avoid. You’ve been chosen, my boy!” The old man beamed.

“Chosen?” Despite his misgivings, Michael felt he was going to have to get to grips with the conversation. Reality, or what was left of it, would just have to wait.

“Don’t parrot. Yes, chosen. You see, there’s a universe very similar to yours in which a very venerable science journal has, how can I put this, disappeared up its own wormhole. The future was kind to the editors, but as they become increasingly obsolete in the face of technology, they, well, they retreated.”

“Retreated?”

“What did I tell you, my boy? I’ve not crossed the universal bridge in search of an echo. Yes, retreated. But now it seems there is once more a need for some serious science, and our universe has, um, misplaced its human editors. That’s where you come in. Quite literally.”

“But I—”

“No buts. You were chosen by one of the most powerful computer algorithms in our universe. It has scanned all viable parallel universes, assessed all likelihoods and possible outcomes and alighted on you. It made contact with you last week.”

“Was that when someone threw a brick through my window with a note saying ‘you iz haz wun’ stuck to it?”

“Ah! You did get the message. Excellent. And, of course, you got the paramunicator.”

“The —?”

“The box. The A250.”

“Yes. I did get that. Had to collect it from the Post Office. There was no postage paid — cost me a small fortune!”

“A small price to pay, my boy. A small price to pay.”

“Ah,” Michael paused. This really wasn’t how he’d expected his Tuesday morning to behave. “I’m sure you won't mind me asking,” he ventured, “but this is one of those prank TV shows, isn’t it? You know, when the host leaps out from behind the filing cabinet and says ‘Gotcha!’ while the audience applauds wildly.”

“Have you checked behind the filing cabinet?”

“Um, no. Should I?”

“It’s probably not worth it. I’m afraid that your destiny has been mapped out in the stars and—”

“That doesn’t sound very likely. I checked my stars this morning, and they didn’t even mention meeting a stranger, let alone anything about destiny.”

“Please,” the old man said, gruffly. “I’ve been practising this bit for weeks.” The slightly tinny sound of dramatic orchestral music struck up. “Your destiny has been mapped out in the stars. It falls to you to take the first steps from your universe towards a future of unparalleled knowledge and—” The connection filled with static, the music cut out and the image of the old man distorted and flickered dangerously.

“Oh bugger, we’re nearly out of time. Look, the future of science needs you, the last editors have vanished and if we don’t manage to stabilize the journal, it will start leaching data from your world. You may have already seen it happen — we’re certainly starting to get random Greek letters coming through, which probably fell off some equations in your world.”

“Can’t say I’d noticed.”

“Well, the process tends to start with the less-used characters. When was the last time you saw a tau?”

“Tau?”

“Yes, tau. Squiggly bugger. Looks like a little umbrella.”

“Um, not sure …”

“Exactly — no one ever notices them disappearing. Still, the fact remains that unless you take the plunge, your world will rapidly regress to the Stone Age.”

Michael couldn’t help but puff up his chest a little. If this wasn’t a prank, and he had been chosen, well, it was destiny, right? “What do I have to do?”

“There’ll be a bridge somewhere nearby that will link you through to this plane.”

“Will I be able to get back?”

“From time to time, yes — the holiday terms are pretty reasonable. Look, grab the paramunicator and use it to find the portal. It won’t be far and it will be looking for you. The portal will make the green light come on. Just step through and you can follow your destiny.”

The image flickered again and the buzzing grew ever louder. With a pop the old man disappeared.

Michael retrieved the device from the pile of bills. All of the lights were off and the humming had stopped.

He walked over to the filing cabinet and peered behind it. Wall stared back at him. He scanned the office for signs of hidden cameras. Drawing a blank, he opened the door and poked his head into the corridor. All was quiet.

He turned back to the office in time to see the waste-paper basket begin to rock of its own accord. Nervously, Michael edged towards it. The paramunicator buzzed and the green light came on. The plastic bin wobbled back and forth, bumping against the desk as it did so. Michael gingerly reached out his hand and felt a slight tug towards the gaping mouth of the bin. Instinctively, he pulled back, but like a sniffer dog, the bin seemed to have caught his scent. The paramunicator buzzed again.

“That’s it,” the now-familiar voice of the old man returned, albeit quieter — as if he was stuck at the bottom of a well.

Michael reached out his hand again. He began to feel a cool wind around him, a mini hurricane with the bin at the eye of the storm. His hand touched the rim of the bin and he immediately felt as if someone had grabbed his arm. Someone with an iron grip. Michael pitched forward, his head disappearing into the bin. With a loud sucking noise he was pulled across the pandimensional bridge. For a moment his feet poked out from the top of the bin and then, with a satisfying thwock, they were gone.

The bin stopped rocking.

As the wind died down, a few faint words drifted across the pandimensional bridge. “Hang on. Did he say Michael Trye? Oh bugger, we were supposed to go to the third brane on the left.”

In the empty office, a bill for three bottles of cheap red wine gently floated back to the pile from which it had been dislodged by the storm. As it drifted down, it passed the sign on the door. Michael Trye. Handyman, gardener and science-fiction editor. No manuscripts refused.

II

 In events not dissimilar to those described above, the baton of editorship for the award-winning Futures column in Nature was passed from the founder, Henry Gee, to me in 2012. The actual ceremony didn’t involve me sticking my head in a bin (despite what Henry insisted), but the bits about entropic piles of paper (and cheap bottles of red wine) bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth.

Since its original inception back in 1999, Futures has published more than 500 short stories in both Nature and Nature Physics. So popular did it prove that an anthology of 100 stories was released back in 2008 in the then highly fashionable ‘dead tree’ format. Towards the end of 2013, that paper version was brought up to date and converted into the electron-driven ebook format. Around that time, we realized that it was about time we pulled together a new anthology — and so, here we are. Another 100 stories drawn from the pages of the world’s leading science journals.

This project would not have been possible without the ongoing support for Futures from Nature editor-in-chief Philip Campbell and Nature Physics editor Alison Wright, who revived the column’s presence in her journal at the start of this year. This ebook would have struggled to get off the ground without the support of our publisher, Sarah Greaves, and the cover would have been nothing without the contribution of Futures’ long-term — and long-suffering — artist Jacey. More than anything, I need to thank Henry Gee for letting me take control of one of the most exciting and genuinely enjoyable jobs publishing has to offer. Last but not least, I need to thank my much-missed former manager Maxine Clarke, who graciously agreed to me expanding my role to take on Futures — and it is to her memory that I would like to dedicate this new collection. Without her advice and support over the years, I wouldn’t be here and neither would this book.

Colin Sullivan

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Extracted from 100 stories from 100 authors. Find out what the future holds with the latest anthology of flash fiction from the popular Nature Futures science-fiction column. From medical advances to contact with aliens, this eBook takes a look at what may happen. Featuring stories from Neal Asher, Barrington Bayley, Elizabeth Bear, Gregory Benford, Tobias Buckell, Kathryn Cramer, David Langford, Tanith Lee, Ian Stewart, Rachel Swirsky, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ian Watson, among many others. RRP $3.99