He hung in space like an antique mirror ball, frozen in a confident stance, glimmering as though dusted with a child’s glitter. A crowd gathered in front of the floating man.
The little girl with blond curls named Anna went as close as she could to the floating man and stared at him for a long time. Ropes kept people from getting too close, though no one could actually touch him. He was an afterimage, a series of insubstantial snapshots frozen in time.
“Why does everybody come to watch him? He doesn’t do anything, Mommy.”
“He’s an important person and has something important to tell us. He’s come back from a faraway place, but he’s been delayed. People come to see him because he could arrive at any moment.”
Anna turned to her mother and said, “Is he my father?”
Her mother – tall, lean, and weary in faux leather jacket and grey cotton coveralls – smiled and shook her head. She said, “No, no, of course not. That’s silly.”
But she didn’t really know for sure.
This is the story of an elf named Rob. He used to be a happy elf, enjoying his important duties as an elf patiently sitting on a shelf and overseeing the children so the naughty ones could be either weeded out or reformed. He used to feel like he was making a difference. Not anymore. Each day he became more frustrated and bitter about his role in Elfdom.
In short, he wanted out. He put in for a transfer but quickly found that transfers out of that position were rarely granted. He was stuck in a permanent dead-end job.
What kind of life was moving from one shelf to the next? What indeed was the shelf life of an elf? Alas, there was no expiration date.
Reluctantly accepting his fate, he searched for ways to make his dreary life more tolerable. He became more complacent, and the children forgot about him most of the time.
One day, as Rob watched the children playing – and clearly ignoring him – it occurred to him that he possessed an extraordinary magical power. An elf who sat on a shelf actually bends space and time when he leaps from one place to another. He decided he needed to do more of these surprise visits to entertain himself if not the children.
On the evening it began, the Internet was acting strangely. Backgrounds were darker. Icons jittered nervously. Response was slow, like a plodding zombie. Judy could barely read the latest inspirational and politically charged memes from her Facebook “friends.” Feeling out of touch with the world, she reluctantly reached for the shutdown button. That’s when she received the first tweet.
It was a simple message from her old friend Molly: “I’m coming to see you, Judy.”
Normally this would delight her. Molly was one of her dearest and oldest friends. The problem was Molly had passed away over three months ago. She had actually seen Molly in the casket.
Admittedly Judy was a Twitter novice. She did not fully understand all the ins and outs of the ‘Twitterverse’. So when she received this tweet, she was not initially concerned.
At first she was confused. Could old tweets hang around and get recycled from time to time? Maybe it was a Twitter glitch. Then she grew gradually more disturbed and kicked herself for not shutting down her laptop sooner. Now she would have to go to bed with that chilling message haunting her thoughts. How was she going to sleep?
“Yep! That’s what I call it,” said the disheveled old man who sat cross-legged on the cement floor rocking back and forth. “Don’t know what it is. Don’t know what to do about it. Just puttin’ up with it.”
The new IT support tech, Barry Monroe, scrawny in a Megadeth T-shirt, jeans and curly brown hair, raised an eyebrow. He wondered if the old man was crazy. More accurately, he wondered how crazy the old man was. He kept a respectable distance from him.
The old man was entangled in a mass of mismatched cables. He explained he was responsible for maintaining the old systems, but could use a bit of help.
Barry’s manager sent him downstairs, beneath the IT department’s data centre, to determine why one of the old systems outside the cloud kept generating random, meaningless error messages referring to an unnamed ‘it.’
They saw the water carriers again. Against the Martian reddish desert sand and rocks, the mirage was hazy. The illusion was of several human-like figures marching solemnly across the sands, each bearing two large urn-shaped containers full of water. They could see the water sloshing, some of it spilling to the ground and sizzling as though the sands were hot.
The first Martian colony was populated by scientists, engineers, labourers and one historian and poet named Josiah Endicott. Josiah had witnessed this phenomenon more than once. He was in his late twenties, with a full head of dark hair and short beard, and looked almost professorial despite his age.
He approached the colony’s psychologist, Noelle Paxton, about the latest sighting. She had never seen the phenomenon.
Noelle was young and energetic, with short brown hair, soft features, a gentle smile, and a slim figure even in the bulky protective suit.
He was still uncomfortable speaking with the breather implant. “It’s always the same, three figures carrying water.”
“What do you think they are?”
“This ain’t gonna be your usual Disney-type attraction,” explained Charles, self-appointed leader of the motley group.
“It’ll be better!” said Arielle, dark-haired, skinny, wide-eyed.
“The latest in 3D imprint AI technology,” said Brady, a wiry and sandy-haired nerd with thick glasses.
“Scarier than the real thing,” said Arielle. She was so excited she couldn’t keep still.
Charles was tall, muscular and good-looking, with a full head of brown hair. He was driving his parents’ old gas-guzzling SUV. It comfortably fit his five college friends, though the ride was not so comfortable since the shock absorbers were bad.
“There it is!” said Arielle. “Cool!”
The Automated Haunted House looked very old, rundown, gloomy. It stood atop a steep hill. Large birds circled overhead.
“Buzzards,” said Louis, short and stocky with curly black hair.
“Robots,” said Brady, smiling.
Arielle said, “Don’t spoil the fun, Brady.”
Dougout squeaked and Crystal purred as they rolled out bouncing and jerking from the ship in their buddy trawler. Dougout navigated the rough terrain while Crystal performed continuous 360-degree scans. To their increasing annoyance, the ship checked their status every fifteen minutes.
Crystal snarled, “Any way to put the ship on silent mode?”
“Sorry, dear,” said Dougout. “it would detect it and we would get penalized.”
She sighed. “Might be worth it.”
Dougout was a small human and fitted easily into the cramped driver’s seat of the trawler. He had light brown skin, which matched his dark brown overalls and explosion of dark brown hair.
“Any sign of the life we detected from orbit?” he asked.
“Not yet. This place should be teeming with life.”
“Yeah, it’s unsettlingly unsettled.”