Rob sat silently, his digital avatar waiting behind a corridor bulkhead. He knew the respawn point was just past the next bend, and he had spent many an hour in this exact spot just waiting for that digital flicker, that small group of pixels changing color to indicate another victim falling into his trap. They respawned without any weapons or armor, only the pathetic default loadout – pistol with 19-bullet clip, hunting knife, and a daunting task ahead of them. The small triangle area on the screen flickered, heralding the death of another sucker. Rob popped out from his hiding place, unloading just enough bullets to take out his victim with a head shot, then popped back into the corner smug in his accomplishment. The screams of frustration over the headset were sweet music to his ears.
Rob had been playing Halo in all of its myriad iterations for up to twenty hours a week over the past three years. He had fallen deeply into the basking glow of accomplishment he gained from every kill, every triumph over another human being, though it had cost him his wife, his job, and eventually his independence as he was forced to move back in with his parents. He rarely left his digital world, now. Nothing else mattered, the sirens song of prepubescent screams of anguish and frustration his lullaby every night and his alarm every day.
So deeply focused he was that he didn’t notice the abnormal brightness out the basement window. The glow started as soft amber, yet quickly grew in intensity to a scorching white that seared the eyes. Absorbed in the screen in front of him, the flames of the world dying didn’t infringe upon his game-induced trance until the window exploded inwards, flying shards slicing his body as the searing heat invaded the room. He had only a moment to ponder a life wasted before the pain took his consciousness, eclipsing his sanity as his body boiled away.
“But you know I love you!”
“Yes, Scott, I know you do, it’s just…”
“Well then what’s the big deal?”
Hayley fell silent, not knowing exactly how to respond. She really liked Scott – she had known that from their first date – but she wasn’t sure she was ready for this next step. She pulled her sweater closer against the wind as she looked up at him, seated next to her on the blanket, the fire crackling enchantingly in front of them. His eyes drew her in, as always – not quite green, not quite amber, sometimes flashing with emotion. A zest for life, flickering deep inside – it was something you couldn’t hide. She thought she fell deeper for him every time she saw those eyes. Of course his well-toned frame and athletic build didn’t hurt too much. She smiled shyly at him, taking a breath to steady herself. “I just… I wanted to save myself, you know?”
Scott scoffed. “Aww, c’mon, you’re not pulling that religious crap on me, are you?”
“No, it’s not that.” Hayley fell silent again, organizing her thoughts. “I just, you know, want it to be special.”
“Ok, tell you what,” Scott sighed. “Let’s just relax here, and see where things go.”
Hayley smiled, her face brightening. “I’d like that very much.”
She snuggled in closer to Scott, putting her head on his shoulder as his arm wrapped around her. She felt comforted in his embrace, as if the world around just didn’t matter anymore. She inhaled his scent, mingling with the crackling woodsmoke from their small fire, and felt her heart beat just a little faster. Hayley looked up at Scott, and their eyes locked. She felt his arm tightened as he pulled her close, their mouths meeting in the firelight. His other hand stroked her back, gently running up and down her shirt as their tongues intertwined. She felt herself melting, like she always did, falling passive in his embrace. Scott continued his stroking, though he had moved his hand lower now. He gently caressed her hips as his hand moved farther, touching upon the bare skin of her legs. His touch sent shivers throughout her body, her blood now pounding in her ears, a rushing sensation filling her as a wind blowing across the plains of her soul. She moaned slightly against his mouth as his hand continued to explore.
She felt like she was flowing, her body heating hotter than she had ever felt, as though a bright light was cascading across her. She felt Scott pull away suddenly, but the heat didn’t leave her body – in fact, it intensified from a gentle warmth to a scorching July afternoon. Her eyes flew open, and she barely had time to scream before the rolling wall of fire enveloped the pair.
James stared wearily at his computer monitor. He’d been regretting committing to Christmas Eve for delivery ever since he set the timeline. He’d known it was unrealistic, that he’d have trouble getting a hold of the vendors this close to the holidays. Hell, they’re probably on vacation the entire month of December, he mused, fucking UK and their twelve-million-days-off a year. Sighing over his optimism, he dove back into work. Nothing for it this time but to take my punishment and not make silly promises in the future. It was already late, and he was looking at a Saturday filled with arbitrary code for an insipid service his bosses thought would further their bottom line ever-so-slightly.
He’d sent the request fifteen times now, and their servers completely had failed to respond. There was no obvious error on his end, and the code he was running had worked without fail not even twenty minutes ago. There was no response, no error, just a timeout exception. Their website was no help, either – it simply returned a “page not found” error. It was as if someone had flipped a switch and taken away all of his chances at productivity. James pondered sending their support an email, but he knew he’d be facing a two-day wait on any response.
James growled in frustration. He’d taken this job with the promise of rewards given for effort put forth. Then they’d put him on this Money Center project. Poor documentation, services that just don’t work, support that was lackadaisical at best, James saw his chances at promotion dwindling with each day of delay. That was why he had committed to the hard date – he had been promised a promotion evaluation three months in, but with five months looming on the horizon he was quickly growing desperate.
He was shocked out of his reverie by a cool liquid filling his lap. He looked down in surprise to see that his pop had spilled, the can tipping completely over. Oddly enough, the liquid all flowed directly towards him. He marveled at this before he realized his chair was sliding backwards. He looked around in a panic, but it wasn’t until he stared out the window at the tilting buildings, the ethereal glow coming from everywhere and nowhere, that he started to realize what was going on. The building began to shake and rattle as the pitch slowly increased. Jacob rose in alarm, and promptly fell backwards into his chair as the angle of the floor increased markedly. Gravity became a force to be fought as he tried to get to his feet, but a particularly strong rumble threw him back as the glow coming in the windows increased, searing his eyes, blinding him to the desk that had detached and come tumbling down upon him. He had only a moment to scream before he was knocked unconscious.
“Well, that was a pretty good movie, don’t you think?”
“Eh, it was ok.”
Travis sighed. “You mean you didn’t like it?”
Beth just stared straight ahead. “No, it was good.”
That flat voice, no joy or emotion in it at all, grated against Travis. He knew Beth was going through some dark times, that he was supposed to be a supportive husband, but it was just so hard lately. The depression had changed her completely. Where before she had been vibrant and vivacious, approaching each day with a smile and energy, lately she’d been lethargic, indecisive, and irritable. Travis knew it was the medication – the Singulair fucking with her brain chemistry – but he knew that the depression was also better than the alternative. Taking a deep breath, he decided to change the subject.
“So, looking forward to the holiday?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
Travis clamped down on his frustration. “I think it’s gonna be great. I mean, we haven’t seen your brother in years. Remember that time, in Terra Haute, at the Denny’s?” Travis laughed despite himself. “I didn’t realize you could get kicked out of those places!”
Beth smiled – the first she’d smiled all day. “Yeah, that was pretty fun.”
Travis saw an opening. “And the time we went go-karting? I still can’t help but laugh at the looks on those teenager’s faces.”
Beth smiled wider, her face brightening a bit. “I know! Mary was so convinced that you’d cheated. I didn’t think they even had a black flag on the go-kart track!”
Travis laughed aloud, reaching up to adjust his mirror. He didn’t notice anything at first, but a glimmer in the rearview caught the corner of his eye. His eyes flicked back to the mirror, and he immediately slammed on his brakes.
Beth screamed a the sudden motion, then immediately started shouting. “What the hell, Travis! What the fuck are you thinking? We could have been killed!” Travis didn’t hear her, though, his eyes glued to the mirror. He didn’t feel his jaw slackening, nor see the worry come over Beth’s face. “Travis? What’s wrong?”
The light around them increased quickly, the sudden change in intensity blinding them. They felt the car lift, and an explosion sent pieces of molten metal directly through both of their bodies. Travis didn’t feel the pain he expected, simply the sense of loss as he realized he would never see Beth happy again.
“Gentlemen, thank you for coming.”
Adam walked back and forth, nervous energy causing him to pace in front of the lectern. The twelve other men in the room seemed attentive, waiting in silence for the start of the festivities.
Adam took a deep breath, then continued. “As you are all aware, we’re in the middle of an oil crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. With fossil fuels dwindling, we have no choice but to seek alternative sources of energy to drive our society.
“Gentlemen, I have found that alternative source.”
Murmurs filled the crowd as the audience expressed their astonishment at the claim. Adam smiled to himself, nervousness dissipating as he continued. “You see, we were approaching the problem from the wrong angle. We were burning combustible materials with little, if any, chance of being able to replenish them. We continually looked for ways to find new consumables to produce our energy. What if…” Adam paused for effect at this point. “What if the answer was in the very air we breathe? What if it has been staring us in the faces all along?”
With a flourish, Adam whisked the cloth off of the lumpy device on the table. What remained was not anything impressive – wires and screws popping out at odd angles, tubes oriented like spokes around a clear area in the middle. “This, is an Argon-Neon laser, with several power modifications. With this, we can create a localized temperature high-point hot enough to burn the Nitrogen in our very atmosphere.” Adam smiled with triumph. “In essence, we will solve our energy problems by creating a new source out of thin air!”
Applause burst out of the gathered audience members, and Adam basked in the momentary glory as he waited for it to die down. He walked around behind the machine, and picked up a small controller. Wires came out of the box in a jumble, connecting to various locations on the machine. Adam looked back at the audience. “So, how about a demonstration?”
Adam pressed a button, and bright light filled the room. Bright beams of energy, visible through reflections off dustmites in the air, met in a glowing ball of flame at the center of the hub. This ball roiled slowly, floating in the air like a marble coated in liquid flame. The applause was almost thunderous this time, at least inside Adam’s head. He closed his eyes, basking in the heat.
As such, he didn’t notice the spark of a circuit board failing. One of the beams flickered, then grew vastly in intensity. The flames spread quickly as the very atmosphere ignited, the fire flowing in every direction at once. Adam had barely a second to realize what had happened, though humanity would have at most two hours remaining to find out.