This is the first work of fiction I’ve “published” since I was in high school. Here goes nothing.
It was always back entrances now. Jake wondered when the next time he’d enter a building from the front would be.
The last six weeks, the same routine. A black, American-made, government-issue SUV, complete with suits with earpieces, and him. The three suits with him were the driver, the guy who was always talking into his earpiece, and the one who just watched Jake. He couldn’t pick them apart out of a lineup, even after six weeks. Where does the government get these guys?
How had this become his life? He used to take the bus, or sometimes the L. But now, an Escalade or whatever-the-hell this was, and back entrances. And back entrances always led to basement parking levels.
Doors opened for him, though not with any respect or courtesy. Purely procedure, hauling the Jake-cargo they’d been told to protect. “Earpiece” once broke character to suggest he’d love to put a bullet in Jake and end this whole charade. Jake had looked at him, nodded a couple of times, and confided, “At least there would be no more questions.”
Jake was used to being liked. But no more of that now. No one shook his hand, no one greeted him — they said “Mr. Versteeg”, but it might as well have been his driver’s license number or the way you pronounced your least favorite food, because any trace of humanity was absent.
The Earpiece and The Watcher escorted Jake from the vehicle where they were met by a 20-something woman in a fashionable but well-worn suit, with one of those TV-sports-color-commentary headsets. “He’s here,” she said flatly into the mouthpiece.
“Mr. Versteeg, this way.” Not “This way, please.” Even basic human courtesy crumbled in his presence. Jake followed, through the empty basement parking lot to a narrow maze of basement hallways, and into an elevator. When you’re led by the nose 24–7, you no longer need GPS.
The elevator door opened to noise, chaos, and a 30-something who looked like the 20-something after 10 years of stress and caffeine.
The 30-something looked at Jake, swallowed a couple of times, fully in a battle of willpower, like your elementary school principal who was just about to unleash some punishment on the kids who had spray painted the school mascot, but knew it could be career-ending. “We need to get to you makeup.”
Jake followed with the 20-something by his side. Entering makeup, the three others in the makeup room swiveled to look at Jake. Here, no one was hiding their emotions. No one was attempting to be professional. Glares. Piercing glares. He was pretty sure they wouldn’t hint about a bullet, they’d just deliver if they had the chance. As luck or life would have it, they didn’t look like the packing type.
Jake smiled at all three, a bit weakly, out of reflex. Throughout his childhood and career, Jake always wore a relaxed smile — it’s why his first girlfriend said he’d caught her eye. It wasn’t a dopey, overblown smile, it wasn’t a smirk, it was a smile that made people happy to see him again. Now, given the circumstances, it probably made him look like a sociopath.
Jake climbed into the makeup chair and looked at himself in the mirror. This was the first public appearance since it all started. The first five weeks had been all government. All “debriefings” as they called it, though more like interrogations. How long had that first session lasted? Two days? Had he eaten pizza? Before he could remember, Jake was slapped back to the present, recoiling from an aggressive application of foundation.
The makeup artist (“Anthony”, from the name tag) looked at him, lips quivering, shaking his head back and forth ever so slightly. “Monster,” escaped Anthony’s gritted teeth. Tears began to muster in the corner of Anthony’s eyes, ready to make their slow march down his cheeks.
Jake supposed these feelings were natural. Jake still wondered if this was all a nightmare, sinking once again into disbelief.
The next 20 minutes were a blur, Jake nearly catatonic as he went through the phases of the automated car wash of makeup, hair, wardrobe (they had him wear a black sport jacket, fully in villain costume), and the standard well-hidden lapel microphone.
A strong female voice focused his attention as it approached. “So this is the guy? I’d kiss you for the ratings this is going to give me, but I lost a cousin so I’d rather not touch you. Not a great cousin mind you, but, I’m supposed to have principles and… yes, appearances are everything.”
Laura was the host of the #1 daytime talk show, a veritable goddess of media, and apparently with enough pull with the government to pull this off. Television? Well, at least it was a break from sterile, brightly lit rooms and national security types with recording equipment.
She leaned in a bit closer to Jake than strangers normally would. “Kid, this is not going to be easy. And I’m not going to make it easy. I’m doing my job. You ready to do yours?” Jake nodded, no smile this time. This was his job? He had no idea what she meant, but nodding seemed more appropriate than a shrug or a look of wholehearted ignorance.
“2 MINUTES!” yelled someone off stage. The 20-something took Jake’s arm and began steering him again, headed out towards where there was clearly a murmuring crowd. The entire crowd inhaled as they walked Jake on to stage. Jake didn’t believe in auras, but he could feel the hate. A hate so strong it silenced everyone. The murmuring began, as more countdowns and shouting echoed around the TV studio.
Laura began the interview in formulaic talk show host cadence, “Today, our show is a unique one, and I hope we never have another like it… The first public appearance after the tragedy…” A consummate professional entertainer, thought Jake, or maybe just a well-designed automaton worth half a billion dollars at this point. Jake needed to focus and not smile. A smile could start a riot in this place.
“Mr. Versteeg, before we talk about the button, I want to talk about you.” Of course, getting straight to it wouldn’t build the crescendo Laura wanted. She wanted to play with her food first. Better for ratings, of course. He didn’t blame her. He did want to correct her — it wasn’t really a button, but he wasn’t running this show, and he wasn’t going to start by interrupting. He could just do everything he could to avoid creating a mob scene.
“Tell me about your childhood.”
Jake started slowly, fighting all of his instincts. Don’t smile. Don’t try and be funny. Don’t try and connect as a human. This was hard, because Jake was entirely human. Jake was funny. Jake, yes, always smiled. This was warm up, getting him comfortable. But his story wasn’t the story of someone you can easily hate. An orphan. Public education. Scholarships. Five years working to pay his way through an undergrad and accelerated masters at an almost-Ivy-league school.
“Tell me about your job.”
Jake was a Senior Strategic Decision Analysis Consultant. He’d made it there by 28, a full five years ahead of most people in his firm. He skipped the MBA, not wanting to incur more student debt and wanting to repay his parents for the money they loaned him for undergrad.
Environmental Strategy Consulting was what Jake’s firm, cleverly named “Environmental Strategy Consultants,” did. They took on some of the hardest problems facing governments, facing countries, facing corporations, and had a reputation for delivering the best possible business or civic strategy with the best possible environmental outcomes. They were considered the geniuses of the green age. Profit and Planetary Health. Corporate and Civic responsibility, with all the data, analysis, predictive modelling, and clear recommendations.
“You helped solve the Keystone controversy.”
The audience muttered with confusion — and leaned in to listen.
“I wouldn’t say solved, but I was a part of the team that created a solution whereby there was no need to route a pipeline through tribal lands, and was much better than the previous approach.”
The audience did not expect this. Yes, Jake had done something good in his life. In fact, a lot of good. They wanted to hate him. This was not feeding the mob. This confused their self-righteous momentum.
“So, you generally help solve crises for governments and corporations, while not making the earth worse off at the same time. Or at least you used to…” Laura looked at the audience, her first appeal for the crowd to join her in judgement. And, then a new tone of voice, slower, more dramatic.
“Tell us about the last client you worked with.”
Jake took a deep breath and looked at Laura. Jake’s voice was fully submissive, but calm. “Where would you like me to start?”
“Start with when you first heard about them.”
“I was told there was a new client. We get new clients all the time, of course, and I’d started doing more intake — I mean, first meetings — with new clients, so this wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was that they asked for me.”
Laura’s follow up rolled off her tongue, casual and curious. “People don’t normally ask for you?” Jake could see her, sizing him up, looking for weakness. There was, well, plenty of weakness.
“People often ask for a managing partner. I.e they want someone of high rank in the room. Or they ask for specific expertise. Or they ask for the founder. They almost never get our founder.
But in this case — they asked for me, and only me.”
Jake swallowed, his voice starting to shake at a level only he noticed, as he recalled the conversations with his colleagues. “Normally intakes are with a team of at least two, and mostly three. But this client made it clear they would only meet with me, alone.”
“Didn’t that raise any alarms?”
“You get all kinds of requests in our business — we charge a lot for our services when working with corporate clients so they often feel the right to be particular. And this group had already paid us a ridiculous advance, even before the first meeting. So they were going to get whatever they asked for. I’m sure the partners would have had me play the banjo if the client asked.”
“Do you play the banjo?” Laura’s signal that humor wasn’t his role was not subtle.
“Uh, no. I was…”
Laura didn’t let him finish. “Anything else unusual?”
“Yes. First, they explicitly stated they did not want a presentation from us — normally our first meeting is all about the client hearing about our philosophy, our approach. But they wanted to present to us, or rather, me. And, we couldn’t find anything on them. Other than a website talking about billions of dollars in investment capital for large scale environmental revolution. They declined our request to provide more background.”
The audience was growing more and more engaged — every statement from Jake generated chatter and noise from the audience. The sound had no resemblance to conversation and was more the sounds of people gasping for breath, exhaling too loud, sighing. Oral, but non-verbal.
“What did they call themselves?”
“They were the Global Progress Group.” More murmurs shot through the crowd. It wasn’t a recognizable company or entity.
“What was your first impression when you met them?”
“Well, everything felt unusual, partially because of everything I just said. I was alone. I was unprepared since I had no background and no presentation to give them. I was reasonably nervous this would be the end of my career — an incredibly demanding client who could dislike me on a whim, hire our competitor, and I’d be out the door.”
“So you were thinking about yourself.” Jake could visualize Laura slowly prying open the trap, and sliding it ever-so-gently in Jake’s path, and gently leading him to being torn limb from limb by the crowd.
“I was thinking about everything. When they walked into the meeting room, I immediately felt something was off. Kind of like the first time you meet Swedish people.”
Laura flashed Jake a look. Simmer down, funny guy. The way you boil a frog is by turning up the heat ever so slowly. She raised her eyebrows in mock curiosity.
Jake returned to narrating the first contact with the client. He remembered walking in and noticing that they just looked different. A college psychology flashback: we are attracted to human averages and symmetry — symmetrical faces, symmetrical bodies, the right proportions are wired into our instincts to choose partners and friends. Something was simply off — like they’d all had slightly aggressive facial surgery — cheekbones just a bit too high? Hair more badger than human. And skin color — he thought it must be the lights, but it was like a light but rich olive, and far too uniform across all three of them.
“Tell us about the meeting.”
There were three of them. “Sonia” was clearly the leader — I guess she looked older? Or simply held herself in a way that showed she was in charge, and no one else. “Raph” was clearly the communications guy who did most of the talking. And finally, “Han”, who he pinned as a nervous technical type, the youngest of the three.
Raph asked him to have a seat, and the presentation began. The first slide was pure shock — it was one of Jake’s slides, from his first client, a study on population growth. It was the money slide from that presentation — the final result of all the analysis, a chart showing global population growth and the ripple effects of global conflict accelerating faster than any other previous models had predicted. It had stunned the client when he presented, and created a massive shift in their project’s funding and focus.
Raph looked at Jake. “I am sure you are familiar with this conclusion.” Raph’s voice read the text out loud:
The world’s population growth is slowing, but we are already beyond the stable population threshold of the earth, and the next century will feature more international conflict and war than the last millennium.
Was that a Eastern European accent? In the basement of some military building, they had played recording after recording of every imaginable accent on the planet, and Jake still couldn’t place it. And was that a smile? Or was he looking through Jake?
Slide after slide followed, each one from a different project of Jake’s, a different client, each he’d obsessed about during the months of the project. “How did you get these…” asked Jake. Only a small nod from Sonia and Raph to acknowledge that Jake had spoken, but the slides continued, each one sparsely accompanied with Raph’s emotionless, verbal summary:
The sustainable, nutritional food supply cannot continue to accommodate even today’s population, and the world faces a shortfall of trillions of kilocalories within 50 years.
The demand for alternative, cheap food sources is stimulating an explosion in high caloric, low nutrient foods, and this will drive the acceleration of cancer, heart disease, immune disorders, and fatal allergies.
The biological and genetic technology of today are small steps away from the creation of super-viruses that will require a global antidote delivery system 1000x more efficient than any current vaccine development and distribution process.
The instability of the geo-political ecosystem is higher than any other period of history, including World War II and the Cold War.
The political divide is global, and accelerating, and has a high potential to create a global, civil war in the next 30 years.
The slides continued, with identical pace, the identical pause after Raph’s final word. Jake’s career, in time lapse. Each project came back to him. Were the conclusions always this dark? The clients were happy — it helped them capitalize on the trajectory of the research, it helped them avoid the pitfalls, it helped governments begin long range planning for potentially existential threats.
But back to back, they formed a picture, a picture Jake had missed, with the gaps and the holidays and the beach time letting him wipe the slate clean after each project to start afresh.
The next slide was not Jake’s. It was not the typical summary slide — but he recognized it. It showed a series of computational models, the kind that financial advisors run to show you that “with your current portfolio and projected income, you have a 95% chance of reaching your retirement goals.” You run every possible scenario from depression to boom to all the variants in between, and see what % of scenarios result in having enough cash when you hit 60 or 70 or whenever the hell you want to retire.
But these weren’t financial scenarios. These were biological growth rates, labeled only as the population of the “species.”
Raph had stopped speaking, observing Jake’s focused scanning back and forth at the projected slide.
Jake stammered, “But this says…”
Sonia moved from her standing position at the corner of the room towards Jake in slow, fateful steps. “You know what it says Jake.”
Jake looked at her, and composed himself. He now knew this was a test — could he see the truth in the data. “It says all organic scenarios end in the end of the Species. That without intervention, the result is extinction. But, what species is this?” Jake looked at the population data, spiking at 12 billion organisms, then plummeting quickly to 0.
The room was silent. All three looked at Jake as if they expected him to answer. Jake looked back at Raph, then Sonia. “Okay, I get it. It’s Homo Sapiens.”
The next slide advanced, without any of them seeming to move. One sentence:
100% of organic scenarios lead to the extinction of the human race within 150 years.
Jake exhaled, a bit frustrated. This kind of test was what he didn’t want — were they crackpots, seeing if he’d support them? Or were they fully rational, testing to see if he’d push back against their conclusions? Did they want an accomplice, a patsy, a truth-teller, a guide, a yes-man, an antagonist, or something else. His training kicked in: Take a deep breath and read the room, Jake.
The next slide appeared — more data, more background, more detail on the previous scenarios, algorithms, assumptions, variables, data sources. It was incredible. Raph seemed to know when Jake was finished, advancing to the next array of data: genetic, biological, agricultural, military. He’d never seen a model like this before — bigger, more sources, more variables.
Finally, a blank slide, and Raph eyes softened. “This model took over a year to run, Jake. And it’s been run in parallel in multiple environments, with broad statistical variation and every potential extreme. They all come back with the same conclusion.”
“Impossible.” Jake shook his head slowly, side to side. You can’t conclude this type of thing about humans — you can use these models on instinctual animals and confined habitats, but… “
Raph looked at Jake, with a look that began to resemble pity. “Jake, the dice have been rolling for 50 years now. And more dice get rolled every day. It’s just a matter of time before they — I believe you say, ‘come up sixes.’
Jake exhaled, still without any grasp of who the hell these people really were? Wealthy doomsday cult? Space exploration enthusiasts? “There has to be a survival scenario with all of these variables. In fact there have to be multiple, potentially hundreds or thousands of them.”
Raph said, “Not organic ones, Jake. Not organic. Even if the current approach to economics, politics, agriculture, science are disrupted more than any other disruption in human history, the results are the same. But there is one variable that changes all scenarios.”
The next slide was another series of computational models, all starting at a population of 8 million, much smaller than the previous population, and growing until it flattened out and stabilised well below half a billion ‘organisms’. Jake had become impatient, starting to feel like they were toying with him, showing him obvious mistakes — “This isn’t a comparable model — the population starts at a miniscule fraction of the previous study. The inputs are three orders of magnitude smaller.”
Raph nodded his head, unaffected by Jake’s tone growing more and more emotional.
Jake read the next slide three times before his mind allowed him to accept it.
Unless 99.9% of the world’s population is removed, humankind will become extinct.
Jake swallowed hard. Oh, crap.Nazis. Or some sort of genetic cleansing group. Or maybe they’d just watched Fight Club one too many times. Whatever this was, it was a nightmare.
Han, the third and previous silent member, stepped forward, opened a laptop, and slid it in front of Jake. The modeling software opened to the last two graphs and data that generated them. Han nodded nervously and stepped back. Sonia walked around the table and put a hand on Jake’s shoulder. “Take your time, Jake.”
The door closed, leaving Jake alone, anger brewing quickly — What was this? The strategic decision making SAT? He’d been done with the case study bullshit methods of McKinsey, HBS, Wharton, and the other asshole analytics factories a long time ago. He wasn’t about to play ‘find the mistake’ while the organ grinder banged away at the keyboard.
But, he did love data… he’d just take a peek, and if there wasn’t anything obvious, he’d find a way to excuse himself, to smile and depart, report this to the partners, and walk away. But, wow — the data. Probability curves dating back to the 1950s showing peaks and valleys for the kickoff of an extinction level event — he knew his history well enough to see Checkpoint Charlie, The Bay of Pigs, the Kim Jongs — all the events that we’d seen as “close calls”. He saw the period of recurrence was shrinking, more events every year, higher probability curves, and then overlapping events. Raph’s “rolls of the dice,” the basic model that pulled them all together, and the final analysis. Sure, nothing’s truly 100%, but after 50 or 100 decimal places, 99.9% with 100 other 9s following, it was close enough.
Then Jake noticed the sun was getting closer to the horizon. He’d been staring at the data for two hours. In some ways it was his life’s work. Someone had taken his one-hit wonders and composed an opera. They’d taken the scraps he’d dropped along the way, and had knit a frigging airtight quilt that could not be cut and would never unravel.
Fuck me. They’re right. On both models.
Jake stood up and went to the window. The door behind him opened, and Sonia walked in, followed by Raph and Han.
This time Han carried a briefcase.
Laura broke Jake out of his storytelling. “Jake, at this point, you believed they were right?”
Jake looked up and remembered the audience. He’d been able to forget the hatred that had sucked all the oxygen out of the TV studio, but now he could see it had settled into a calm, directed emotion — the rumblings of the studio had settled into determined, directed expression.
“Yes. The science was the best I’ve ever seen. The models broader than any other run. The mathematics were not complicated — which is why it was believable. But not just believable. Irrefutable. Scientific truth.”
Laura frowned. “You determined all of this in just a matter of hours.”
Jake shook his head, put one hand in his head, and then ran that hand through his hair, as if he was trying to shake his brain awake. “You have to understand, all of the research, all of the data — that was my life’s work. I know this data better than I know my friends. The work has been proven true again and again. Any work I’ve done where mistakes have ever been found, was not in their research. It’s all been proven. They just combined it all, it to run it to the final conclusion.”
The audience did not like this. Laura let the silence become slightly uncomfortable, pointed.
She tilted her head back. “So they brought you a briefcase.”
Jake dove back into the story, if only to escape the silence. He was a better negotiator than this, but well, he’d been through a lot in the last few weeks.
Han set the slimmest metallic briefcase Jake had ever seen in front of him. Han opened it gently. Jake almost laughed when he saw what was inside it.
A simple toggle switch, seated in the bottom of the briefcase. No wires — it seemed to be a part of the case itself. The switch was in a neutral, center position.
Jake stared at it.
There was a simple diagram on a small slip of paper, like a retro “Inspected By” tag that you find in old electronic appliances. It had two simple diagrams on it:
Jake decided to remain silent and wait. He eyed Sonia.
With more grace and confidence than Jake had ever seen in person, she took a seat across from him and folded her hands under the table.
“Jake, you’ve clearly reached the conclusion. The human race will be extinct within a number of generations that you could count on one hand, or maybe two. There is only way to save humanity, and that’s by a simple reset. There are myths like Noah’s Ark in human history that support this. Religions talk about the chosen going on to the next life. These are all reflections of the destruction and near catastrophe that humanity has faced and survived, and humanity’s innate knowledge that we will face destruction again and again.
“But this time is different. There is no survival on its own. There is no ark. Mythology cannot save us. There is no chosen 144,000 that will be saved. There are no spirit babies off to new planets to settle. Without extreme intervention, the human race will not even be a memory, because no one will exist to remember it.
“Human DNA served this species so well as cavemen and throughout the ages, to progress further, to develop technology, to do whatever it takes to first survive, and then to make sure their DNA survived in the form of offspring. To those ends today, humans go to any extent for wealth, status, power. The mind has so capably transferred this will to survive to the social ideas of “survival” in the modern human world. Those same triggers that caused cave dwellers to figure out how to defend human families from sabre-toothed tigers now drive corruption, destruction, death towards the certainty of an extinction level event.
“We have learned to counter that DNA in many ways. But, at this scale, at this population, the counter comes too little, too late.
“What is in front of you is simple. If activated, 99.9% of the world’s population will die. It is random, without bias of trying to save scientists, or prime ministers, or billionaires, or gold medal winners. It is uniform and certain. It is the beginning of the next generation of humanity.”
“Your research tells you this, Jake. The global system is suffocating. Humanity now has the knowledge, the technology, the power, the insight to prevent this from happening, but it cannot do this when it cannot even breathe. It is overrun, exhausted, and seconds away from the fatal blow that will end its life.”
She leaned in slightly, her eyes seeming not to blink at all in the space that followed.
“Give humanity a chance to breathe.”
A Deep Breath
The audience had become completely silent in Jake’s telling — a mixture of open mouthed wonder mingling with the hatred.
Laura asked, “So did you understand then what the button did?”
Jake sighed. Why did they call it a button? It was a switch. But once the media had the slightest lead, they picked the headlines, and “The Button”, some throwback to the finger-on-the-button that would start WWIII was now the catch phrase.
“I had a pretty good idea at that point what it was supposed to represent. But, I was incredibly skeptical that it would actually do anything. I kept flashing back to this being a test — a really, completely deranged, sick experiment. The kind undergrads get extra credit for being guinea pigs in psychology experiments. I did a few of those experiments — they always tell you they are testing one thing when they are actually testing another. I was so deep down the rabbit hole I had no clue as to what they were testing — could be ethics, could be data science, could be faith in my work, for all I knew.”
Laura shook her head slowly side-to-side. No pity, just judgement. “You thought this was a test?”
Jake nodded several times. “It seemed too crazy to be real.”
In the room with the client, Jake had desperately wanted to wake up, but he knew he wasn’t dreaming. He wasn’t creative enough to come up with this insanity. Most of Jake’s dreams were conventional, pedestrian stuff — running away from an angry dog, something work related, or the occasional confusing dream about a three way with the neighbor and his third grade teacher.
Laura was leaving long gaps of silence. While the audience was entranced, holding its collective breath, Laura was conducting the orchestra of live television, and she knew this was the moment to slow play the hand.
“Jake, what happened next?”
“I asked a lot of questions — from every angle. About the data, about the analysis, about how they could be certain. About what would really happen when the… button was… flipped. It’s that question that still haunts me. Sonia looked at me, with certainty, and looked at me the way mothers are supposed to look at their children. She said, ‘Jake, people will die. But some people will live. And then humanity can last 100,000 years.’”
He didn’t say anything, but that’s when he had noticed Sonia’s hands. Her knuckles were smooth, not wrinkled.
“I reached over and flipped it to ‘Yes.’”
The audience gasped. Several people began to sob. One man yelled, “You’re a psychopath!” Jake was pretty sure psychopaths didn’t feel this kind of confused remorse.
Laura let the audience settle, sniffing and grumbling fading to background noise.
“Jake, when did you find out what happened?”
The switch had clicked. And then nothing else. Had Sonia smiled? Raph looked proud. But they each nodded and left the room, Raph holding the door for Jake and pointing to the elevator back to the ground floor.
Jake half wanted answers but wholly wanted to get the hell out as quickly as possible. He was relieved to see cars on the street, people on sidewalks. He shut off his phone until he returned home, then turned it back on and dialed the partner who had given him the client.
The voice on the other end said “Jake, can you believe this?”
“Turn… on… your… TV….”
The TV was news, with the largest possible font for a headline:
ENTIRE STATE OF LOUISIANA DEAD
Social media exploded. Twitter spun out of control. The instant genocide of 5 million people.
In the TV studio, the audience sobbed, and Laura let the latest wave of emotion ease before returning to questions. “Jake, what do you think happened.”
“I’ve been trying to piece it together for weeks. I have no evidence, but I think it was a programming mistake. Just a glitch. My honest belief is that they intended it to do what they said.”
Laura gaped, wide eyed, her first break in character. “Wait, you think….”
Jake had seen it happen in every software or IT group all the time — they forget to take out the test data, they leave out an edge case. Maybe they ran a small test of it in some borough in the Bayou where no one would complain for a while about a vanishing of a jug band. Then when it came time for the big show, some junior engineer just forgot to reset all the parameters. Jake knew software engineers. Most were not great at testing.
Laura’s questions now came two-by-two, animals pouring into the ark. “Do you think they came from the future? Were they aliens?”
“That seems a bit ridiculous.” Jake realized he now seemed ridiculous, that time travel and aliens were silly but toggle-switches that neutron bomb everyone inside the border of a set of lines drawn on a map were ever-so-sensible.
Saved by the bell, the show ended with Laura playing to the crowd, projecting how appalled she was by everything she’d heard, and that the world was still searching for answers, and that she believed Jake would have to face justice for whatever part he played. Jake bowed his head slightly, mostly numb from the retelling.
Jake went into rewind, un-wardrobed, un-mic’d, un-makeup’d, back in the elevator, back with the identical secret service triplets and the black Escalade.
Jake was still thinking about the switch.
Once he’d heard what had happened, he called the tip line, calmly spoke that he thinks he was a part of what happened. A briefcase, a device. Jake knew the right words that they would take him seriously. Within a couple of hours he was in custody and in the first basement of many, several levels below ground, isolated, and the questions had begun. Eventually he’d learned that a cluster of counties in Albania and a part of Belize had also been wiped out. Other than poor literacy rates, there seemed to be no connection whatsoever.
He was tired of questions.
Months later, Jake was moved to another country, one not affected by the incident. Criminal charges were not pressed — elements in the US Government wanted Jake disappeared, and luckily they were elements that did not believe in murder to erase the record. The court case would have been thin — there was no actual trace between Jake and what had happened, other than one hell of a coincidence on timing — Jake’s watch heart rate elevated exactly at the moment of the genocide, and GPS traced him to the room where he said the switch was flipped.
The taxi from the airport to his new apartment. Jake had different colored hair, he was in a country where he could pass physically for a local, but where he needed to learn the language. He was just relieved to be gone from the US.
He used the keys in the relocation packet to open the door, dropped his bags on the floor.
A metallic shape caught his eye. On an open, wooden rolltop desk in the corner, there it was.
It could not be.
Jake walked towards the desk, and put his hands on the briefcase, identical in every fashion.
He slowly opened the case, his heart pounding.
Nestled in the briefcase, like a prop from a 1960s movie, neatly typed on a 3x5 card, were the words:
This is a work of fiction. Maybe even science fiction.
A lot of people will read this (especially those who have read Factfulness) and say that there is so much evidence that things are improving, with the one exception of climate change. I’m not claiming any basis in reality here. This was a creative exercise born of the corner of my mind that isn’t sure humanity deserves to exist, that battles with the rest of me that hopes that we can solve some of these problems that seem insurmountable at times.
I am sure some people will wonder if I am advocating that Jake should push the button a second time. Like any good author, I’ll keep you wondering.
A lot of people will read this and say it’s a rip off of the Avengers Infinity War and/or Endgame. I haven’t actually seen Endgame but of course the theme of a reset of the universe is the villain’s hypothesis. I wrote this before I saw Infinity War, but it’s not like this idea is an original one that I could claim it’s entirely original. It’s been done countless times, such as in Asimov’s Foundation series.
I loved learning about the protests at an ivy-league university around the creation of a small black hole in a physics experiment (true story) — people feared that something so innocuous like a lab experiment could suddenly end humanity. Kind of the biggest practical joke while we’d been focused on nuclear war, bioterrorism, etc for the world to end with simple negligence. Similarly, the idea of a doomsday device that has the same bugs as end user software really appealed to me. That an extinction level event would fail because of a difficulty in testing.