Science Fiction

Kal was stocking shelves. This was his least favorite part of the job. He enjoyed the customer service element, helping people solve their problems. At an arts and crafts store there was always a parade of characters with questions. The most annoying customers were those who really just wanted him to do their project for them. He would sometimes indulge the pushy old ladies or lazy teenagers, and go beyond his job description by helping them cut foam boards, or even drawing out schematics for their projects. This was not why he had gone to art school, but he had a hard time utilizing the word ‘no’, and it was better than unpacking boxes.

As he stocked pencils, he noticed the items on the shelf were annoyingly disorganized. He was not intensely OCD about organizing things in his own life, but his manager was there, and he was starting to be trained in mimicking the mental disorder. As he tidied the shelf, he noticed an object he didn't recognize. This was unusual. Having worked in this store for years, he was quite familiar with nearly everything to be found in the inventory. He picked the item off the shelf to examine it. It was a small metal object with no identifying label. One end was tubular in shape, like it was meant to fit into some other component. The other end was more box-like, with a hatch that opened and closed, but the purpose of it was unclear. Maybe someone else knew what it was.

"Hey, Wilson! Consult." He liked to talk to his co-workers as though they were all in a procedurally medical drama, calling them by their last names, and requesting 'consults' on situations. It added some level of fantasy to a job that was otherwise dreary. Wilson walked over.

"What's up?" she asked.

"Do you have any idea what this is?"

She looked at the silvery object. Wilson was not an individual who liked to be stumped. She knew her stuff, and would not letup when facing a puzzle. This was actually a trait they both shared, which was one of the reasons they were friends.

"Hmmm. I'm not sure. Let me check MacLarsen."

MacLarsen was the main distributer to the store. Most items they carried could be found on their website, accompanied by a photo. However, without any identifying number or title, Kal wondered how she planned to even search for it. He accompanied her to the computer, where they tried searching a various combinations of descriptive words that might produce a result. No luck.

"Well, I just don't know," said Wilson.

"You think it might just be a part that fell off something?"

"Maybe, but I don't know what."

Without further clarification, the piece was destined for the garbage. Still, Kal was intrigued by the fact that it seemed unique. He also had a hoarding side to his personality, and so he decided to hold on to it. Maybe some explanation would arise. In any case, he was over due for a lunch break, so he put the object in his jacket pocket, and headed to the door. Then Wilson called to him.

“Hey, by the way, is this your notebook?"

It was a nondescript notebook, about six by eight inches, with a black, faux leather cover. He flipped through the pages. It was filled with diagrams, numbers, and schematics. He had no idea how to begin to interpret them. 

"Yeah, Wilson. I'm building a space ship," he said sarcastically. "Where'd you find this?" 

"It was underneath the counter where you usually put your coffee. That's why I thought it might be yours. Like maybe plans for some weird art project."

"Well, it's plans for something. Maybe we should try to build it." He laughed, and flipped through the book one more time. Then he stopped at a page, and stared as the color drained from his face.

"What is it?" Wilson asked.

He spread the notebook open on the counter, reached into his pocket and retrieved the metal object. He placed the mystery object on the page, next to a diagram that exactly portrayed it. 

"Look at this, Wilson."

"What the hell?"

They looked at it in silence for a moment.

“Is someone trying to mess with us?” Kal asked. "Let's put these in the office. Maybe someone will come claim them. Anyway, I'm gonna go get a sandwich.”

On the way to the sandwich place, Kal stopped at the bank to check his balance. He knew he was running tight this month, and weighed his choice of sandwich versus a cup-of-noodles based on how much money he had until his next paycheck came in. $35 dollars in the checking account. Good enough! He could treat himself to a sandwich. The thought of eating cheap noodles again turned his stomach. How many watery cups of cardboard noodles could he take in a week?

After buying his sandwich and returning to the store, he had only a few minutes to eat before he had to clock back in. He made quick work of it. As he logged into the time clock, Wilson walked over.

“Are you back from lunch?”

“Clocking in right now.”

“Ok, when you’re clocked in, come check this out.” 

She walked back to the loading area. Kal finished logging in, and followed her. She was looking at some open boxes amongst a stack that apparently had just arrived. 

“Is this a MacLarsen shipment?” He asked.

“Yeah, it showed up when you were on break. It says MacLarsen on it, but I can’t find a packing slip, and also… what the heck is this.”

He looked in the box in front of her. Inside, nestled in foam packing peanuts, was a glass tube. It was too wide to be a bulb for any light fixture they used in the store, but it had some kind of filament inside, which seemed to be emitting a dim rainbow spectrum of light. 

“Is this for some new display?” Kal asked.

“Not that I know of,” said Wilson. “We weren’t even expecting a shipment today.”

He grabbed a knife, and they opened all the boxes. Each one had something different and unfamiliar. Some of the items were metal, others were plastic. Some had tubes, moving parts, plugs, and threaded couplings. This was either the strangest new merchandise display ever, or the makings of some kind of futuristic air conditioner. None of the pieces had numbers or tags.

“Did you find any instructions?” Kal asked Wilson.

“No. Nothing” She was chewing on her thumb as she examined one of the objects. “Hold on a second.” She walked across the store to the office. He thought maybe she was going to look up MacLarsen’s order history and find out what all these contraptions were. Instead, she returned with the black notebook she had found earlier.

“I knew I recognized that shape!”

She held the notebook open to a page with a diagram of the mysterious component in the box on the floor. 

“What? Wilson, what is all this?”

They continued to unpack the boxes and lay the contents on the floor. Each item was represented in the notebook, with what seemed to be instructions for assembly. They weren’t the clearest instructions, but not much worse than furniture from IKEA. 

“Can I get some help over here?” A customer had wandered into the store, and found Wilson and Kal huddled in the back, examining the strange collection of contraptions. “I was looking for a glue to glue my shoes.”

“Actually, we’re closed,” said Wilson.

“Yeah, sorry. We just closed.” 

“But the door was open. And I need glue for my shoes, you see, they’re coming apart here—“

“Sorry, come back tomorrow.” 

Kal ushered the man out of the store and locked the door. Management would probably come down hard on them for closing early, but this mystery was begging to be solved. They spent the rest of the evening sitting on the floor, trying to decipher the black notebook, and assemble whatever this thing was supposed to be. Some of the pieces were bizarrely heavy, as though they contained a chunk of lead, or other element on the weighty end of the periodic table. One piece had a screen on it, like a cell phone embedded in an alien carburetor. This part fit in the middle of the whole thing, and had a red button on the top. 

After a few hours of fiddling, and a little bit of arguing about the instructions, they stepped back to look at what they had built. It was a strange looking… what do you even call it? One might think they had assembled it wrong, but it matched all the diagrams. The final page of the book had a schematic that looked exactly the same as what they had constructed. 

“Well,” Kal looked at Wilson, “Should we push the button?”

Wilson squeezed Kal’s arm. “We haven’t come this far to back done now, dude.”


Kal reached over and, after a brief moment of hesitation, pressed the red button on the top of the machine, then backed away. The two of them stood at a safe distance, waiting to see if anything happened.

“You think I should have held the button down longer? Or push it again?”

Just then, the thing started to hum. It started very quietly, just at the limits of audible range. Steadily the humming increased, pulsing with an energy that subtly blurred all the senses. 

“Maybe we shouldn’t have done that, Wilson.”

“This is making me a little dizzy,” she said.

They backed away a little farther, and he grabbed her hand. Then the humming abruptly stopped. The machine was completely silent for a moment until the screen on the device lit up. It displayed what appeared to be some company logo, with the word ‘SCIECORP’. Suddenly the lights in the entire store went out, and a voice sounded from the machine.

"This is a prerecorded message from ScieCorp. Well, for us it is prerecorded. For you, it hasn't happened yet. We are contacting you from the future. If our calculations are correct, you are operating two hundred years in our past. If you are hearing this message, it means you have successfully assembled and activated the Time Stimulatron. Thank you. The physics behind this device is beyond your understanding, so we will not attempt to explain it. Our ability to transport these components through time has limitations, so we utilized your existing supply chain company known as MacLarsen. It is our understanding that in your time, retail supply chains were highly prevalent. If the device is successful, it will shift your timeline to avoid the catastrophe which is on the horizon. Our reality of global war, disease, and climate disaster will cease to exist as it is, and your timeline will continue forward to a brighter future. The world depends on you.”

The screen died. Kal and Wilson looked at each other in the darkness,.

“I think we should just go home and talk to management tomorrow,” Wilson said.

“Sounds good to me.”

When the alarm rang in the morning, Kal felt like he had a massive hangover. The feeling slowly wore off as he made his way to work. When he arrived, the lights were still out. The boss was there.

“Did something happen last night?”

“I’m not sure. Where’s Wilson?”

“She called out sick. Said she was feeling nauseous. It doesn’t matter, we can’t open with the power out.”

“Do you know anything about that machine MacLarsen sent us? It was really weird, and might have caused a power surge.”

“What machine?”

Kal went to the back of the store, but there was no sign of the device from the night before. Was he imaging things? He needed to clear his head.

“Hey boss, I’m gonna go get a sandwich.”

As usual, he stopped at the bank to check his account. The ATM printed out a receipt: “Available balance: $50,000. Thanks from SIECORP.”

August 12, 2022 19:55

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RBE | Illustrated Short Stories | 2024-06

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