An Imperial Decree
by Daniel Tierney
Sharla receives a very odd e-mail, which she almost deletes without reading. All her instincts cry out, It’s a scam, stupid, delete it! But her right index finger betrays her and opens the message anyway.
Somewhere in the universe, a switch changes from off to on or from no to yes.
The message is headed in bold face caps: AUGUST 7, 20__. The text is a simple question: Is this you?
Relays that were forged by beings long since gone and forgotten start to click and hum.
Sharla feels the ground move a hair under her feet and her nerves jangle like bells. The date cited in the title is her birthday.
A signal passes rapidly through the relays, through unimaginable airless spaces.
She finally turns off her computer and sits there in the semi-dark. The room around her seems to be charged with a special electricity.
In an office that is not really an office, one red light comes on and starts blinking at regular intervals.
Sharla lies down on her bed and picks up the book she has been reading, a Norwegian police procedural novel that someone had recommended, but the words dance around until she feels dizzy, so she puts it down again and closes her eyes.
A finger that is more like a very thin wire reaches out and presses a button that is more like a flower.
Sharla opens her eyes, emerging slowly from a twilight half-sleep to realize that her computer has restarted on its own. She gets up and walks towards it, feeling she is still asleep but knowing that she isn’t. On her screen is the same message, but with a note indicating that it has been resent. The cursor blinks suggestively: Is this you?
* * *
Sharla works in an electronics store that sells high-end computers, tablets and phones. She is constantly surprised by the range of customers, from hip-hop kids of all races with hoodies, tats and earrings to dark-suited executive types to chubby balding geeks with their Spock tee shirts and Vans, all staring up at screens of all sizes.
She suspects that the ancestors of these people once stared the same way at their gold-plated idols and crosses. On her break, she mindlessly opens her e-mail app and, before she can close it, sees the same message: Is this you? In the pocket of her beige sales slacks her phone keeps vibrating.
Around a council table that is not really a table sits uncountable beings who must decide what to do about the current crisis. They all agree that the process, however regrettable, cannot be stopped. The meeting adjourns.
Sharla finds her computer on again when she returns from work and is unable to turn it off. Even with the power cord pulled from the wall, the screen remains lit with the same message: Is this you?
The same message is sent and repeatedly resent to the same people. At present 586 have answered NO and 701 have answered YES. Sharla and thousands of others have yet to answer. Those who have answered have their computers and other devices returned to their control.
Sharla takes a pill to sleep and another to wake up. She takes two pills to feel better emotionally and eight pills to feel healthy. She takes another pill to lose weight. She takes another pill to prevent pregnancy. She expects to see the day when pills will replace the need to eat.
Agents are dispatched to the homes of those who answered YES. These people are taken and put in vehicles with no windows and driven to abandoned aircraft hangars in deserts around the world.
Agents are dispatched to the houses of those who answered NO. They remain inside with the occupants awaiting further directives. No agents are dispatched to those who have not answered.
* * *
Sharla is bored. Without the use of her computer, she feels cut off from reality. She calls several friends, but the calls all go to answering machines. Sharla doesn’t bother to leave a message. She paces up and down her small apartment and thinks about taking more pills but is afraid of overdosing herself again.
She picks up and throws her Norwegian police procedural at her computer, but it misses and hits the wall behind it with a papery splat. Is this you? Is this you? Is this you?
The people who answered YES are taken from the hangars and marched blindfolded out into the lunar coolness of the desert night. After an hour of walking, they are forced onto their knees. The agents, following strict protocols, walk along behind the kneeling people, who are crying and calling out for water.
When an agent reaches the hundredth person, he leans down and whispers in the person’s ear. The person then gets up and wanders off into the desert to almost certain death. The rest are marched back to their hangars. This procedure is repeated every six hours until all are gone. The hangars are then cleansed and abandoned.
* * *
Unable to sleep, Sharla goes into the kitchen and roots around in a drawer until she finds what she’s looking for. Then she walks back to her bedroom and approaches the computer. She swings the claw hammer up and down repeatedly until her computer is smashed into hundreds of plastic, metal, glass and wire shards.
Ignoring the angry knocks on her floor from her downstairs neighbor, she then smashes her phone to bits as well. Sweeping the shards into a large shopping bag, Sharla goes out to the dumpster and deposits the bag. Back inside, she pours herself a glass of white wine, drinks it, then turns out the lights and falls into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.
Those who answered NO and their families are ‘wiped’ and sedated. When they wake up they have no memory of the agents and have lost only a nanosecond of time. But inside their heads a mechanism has been inserted that begins counting down from one million.
When the mechanism reaches zero, these persons will begin speaking a language they do not understand, and which has not been spoken on Earth since before the Second Ice Age. Eventually they will either commit suicide or be hospitalized in various institutions for the remainder of their lives.
* * *
Sharla buys a little blue spiral notebook and takes it everywhere she goes. She pays particular attention to people who are constantly checking their phones or tablets. She makes a note of their appearance and the exact time. She has no idea why she is doing this but, for whatever reason, it makes her feel calmer. For a time she contemplates changing her name and trying to “disappear” but finally decides that such a desperate act would be futile anyway.
The relays that were opened begin to close in descending order across infinite distances. The red lights blink off. The council meets one final time and adjourns. All notes from the meeting are expunged and each member is resigned, or perhaps relieved, in the knowledge that he or she or it will never be called on to serve again.
Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Tierney