by Alex Shternshain

At 16:55 the phone rang. That’d be the last time for the day, hopefully. I clicked a button on my switchboard and a microphone came to life.

“Los Angeles Water Authority, Laura speaking.”

“You have to help me!” the voice on the other end of the line sounded hysterical.

“How can I help you, sir?”

“It’s in our water! They’re contaminating our water! Can you help me?”

It was almost the end of my shift, and I was yearning to remove the headset and go home, and now this. The girl next to me got up from her desk and waved good-bye to me as she was putting on her coat. Lucky her. I tried to stay calm.

“Well,” I said, “Since we are, after all, the Water Authority, it’s technically our job to help you with all water-related problems. Now, can you please tell me who is contaminating your water and how? And by the way, your name would be?”

“Jeremy Stein. It’s the aliens! They’re putting fluoride in the water to suppress our brain functions, to make us docile and easier to control.”

“Sir, the fluoride is inserted into the drinking water as part of the government plan to enhance dental health. Its usefulness has been proven by many independent studies, and it has been approved by the FDA.”

“The FDA don’t know jack shit, Laura. Half of them are on the aliens’ payroll anyway, and they are leading the other half by the nose.”

This was getting a bit tiresome. “How about if we send someone over to your house for some measurements of water quality, sir?” I wrote down the phone number and address, got up from my desk, turned around—and immediately discovered Martin, my manager, standing behind me. It was his last daily round of visiting the troops.

“Another anti-fluoride fanatic?” he asked.

“Yes, figured we might as well get it over with now. The personal touch and all that.”

“Just leave a note to the tech guys.” Martin said, and then scratched the back of his head. “But, you know, they’re overbooked from here to eternity. Don’t expect this guy to stop calling anytime soon.”

I sighed and picked up my purse. “Bye, Martin.”

As I was walking out, before I even left the office, two competing notions got a hold of my brain, each pulling it in different directions, yet toward the same destination. One was something about a number, and the other was Jeremy’s voice echoing in my head. In my line of work, I get to talk to a lot of zealots, freaks, and just plain weird people, but this one, for some reason, sounded… convincing. And the other thought—ah, the phone number! I didn’t recall the street name, but the number belonged to the Inglewood area, which was practically on my way home. I stopped in my tracks, hesitating for a second—then made a 180-degree spin on the tip of my heel. “Er, Martin?”

As I was conveying my suggestion to my boss, his expression went from amusement to bewilderment and then to slight alarm. If, heaven forbid, one customer receives prompt and timely service from the LA Water Authority all of the others will expect the same.

“And anyway,” I said, “I have the technical training, and can wrap it all up in less than an hour.”

He was still reluctant, so I added, “And you said yourself he’s going to call again and again. Might as well take care of this small initiative today, right?”

“Since when do you care?” he scratched the back of his neck again and his eyes lit up with the glow of understanding, “Don’t tell me you’re in it just for the overtime payment?”

“And if I was?” I said, “It’s a win-win solution. He stops calling and you don’t have to deal with him anymore, I get some overtime, everyone’s happy. Not that I am in it for the overtime, of course. Just trying to help a fellow man. Besides, I live nearby, so if there’s a problem with his water, I want to know.”

Of course you do. Get out of here before I change my mind.”

* * * * *

Twenty-five minutes later I found the address and knocked on the door of a run-down one-story cottage two blocks away from the old Lakers’ Forum. I anticipated a middle-aged crazy-scientist type of character to open the door and Jeremy delivered above and beyond my expectations.

The house itself was one continuous attack on all five senses since the first moment I walked through the door. Imagine a public library with a small coffee shop on the second floor. Below, people are reading books at their leisure, pages rustling, and above a quiet clanging of spoons and forks is heard. Now imagine a 6.9 earthquake collapsing the place so that plates and paperbacks mix together in one pile and bits of food get smeared on the covers. That’s how Jeremy’s house looked. As for the owner, he mimicked his place of residence. Everything about him was mixed up—meticulously ironed black pants with a ketchup-stained Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of old torn Nikes. His dark hair was combed in perfect straight lines—but his cheeks sported a three-day-old beginning of a beard. He was about forty, although at first sight looked much older.

The water, as I knew full well, was completely and utterly usual. After I informed Jeremy of this, he grabbed me by the hand and sat me down on the sofa. He brought out a dog-eared notebook and began to explain his theory.

“First was the water. The fluoride insertion began in 1969, and the IQ of the population began dropping almost immediately. It dropped an average of 1.5 points every decade.” I wondered how many times he had given this lecture, and he continued, “But that was not enough for them. Now they’ve started with the cellular phones.”

“What’s the problem with cellular phones?” I asked.

“They irradiate the brain! Sure, they’re FCC-approved and all, but the high-frequency emissions hurt neural links and slow down brain cortex functions. During the last decade, the average IQ of the population dropped by a full three points. This means that the combination of fluoride and cell-phones is doubly effective!”

“Water waves and radio waves combined!” I said, wondering how much longer I should tolerate this comedy.

“Yes, I couldn’t have said it better myself. The waves, it’s all in the waves. But wait, there’s more,” he hurriedly flipped a few pages in his notebook, “The third direction in which they tried to attack our intelligence was the TV waves. Since the beginning of the so-called ‘reality shows’, my studies indicate a further drop of the average person’s IQ. Although, of course,” he coughed apologetically, “these started only a couple of years ago and there’s still not enough statistical data.”

I shook my head. The man had obviously dedicated a lifetime to churning out these figures. And I had to admit he was very convincing.

“So, basically,” I said, “these aliens are about to turn us into a band of bumbling idiots before they conquer us?”

“Yes, you got the point precisely! Mankind must act quickly before it’s too late!”

“And did you do anything?” I asked.

“I wrote letters to Qualcomm, I went to San Diego, I even talked to their CEO. And of course I wrote to CBS right after the first Survivor.


“And nothing. They just laughed me off.”

“I see. Well, Jeremy, you have given me a wealth of information. Too bad I have to end the conversation now.”

I stood up and opened my purse. Under the car keys, I found what I was looking for: a small silver metallic tube. I pointed one end at Jeremy and pressed the other. He clutched his chest with his hands and fell flat on his back. Heart attack. I placed another tube-like object, this one black, on the floor. Within an hour, the place would be ablaze, with all of Jeremy’s notes, papers and books.

Before leaving the house, I picked up Jeremy’s table-phone (I wasn’t crazy enough to use the cellular) and dialed a thirteen-digit number.

“This is L’laoli speaking,” I said.

“Report,” said the metallic voice on the other end of the line.

“This one came very close. I had to do him in.”

“Did anyone believe him?”

“No. But…” I hesitated. Should I rat on a colleague?

“But what? Report.”

“But you have to do something about those guys in Qualcomm and CBS. They are really beginning to get sloppy.”

If a Tree Falls in Space

by Alex Shternshain

The blue glow, which was until now filling the cabin of The Sparrow, went dim as the Earth began disappearing behind the lunar horizon. The orbital module, with its sole occupant, entered an eighteen-minute period of silence. Currently, Lt. Col. Jeff Olsen (USAF) was the loneliest person in the universe. Not the Columbian-era mariners on their leaky wooden ships, nor the polar explorers in the Arctic wilderness, not even the first astronauts in their Mercury capsules, knew what it was like to be 2,500 miles away from the nearest human beings—Cmdr. Tom Frost (US Navy) and Captain Pete Nakamura (USMC), who were right now busy digging up some rocks down on the slopes of the Tycho crater.

And if you discount those two, it was almost 250,000 miles, over a full light-second, to his home base in Houston. Not that it mattered now—light, or any other electromagnetic radiation, could not reach him from Earth. The huge dark body of the moon was firmly stuck between him and the blue planet, blocking all communications.

By now the azure disk of his home world descended below the horizon in its entirety, and Jeff only had a handful of stars and control lamps to assist his vision. He raised his gloved hand and touched a panel above him. A small source of soft light came to life. It was synthetic and orange colored, not at all like the friendly blue glow he had left behind. Its unnaturalness disgusted Jeff.

But work was work, and soon he set his personal feelings aside, and welcomed the orange light, if not as a friend than at least as a useful companion. It was time for a routine scheduled systems check. “What if I skip the check?” thought Jeff to himself bemusedly. “Will anybody know? If a tree falls in space, does anyone hear it? If an astronaut on the other side of the moon doesn’t do what he is supposed to do, does Mission Control know it?” But Jeff was too well trained to let those thoughts distract him, and even now his fingers were pressing buttons and pulling levers, and his eyes were examining the consoles.

The Sparrow had no surprises in store for him, all its systems operating within accepted parameters. Jeff announced his results into the flight recorder, and glanced at the clock. In six more minutes, the Earth will rise over the other side. Six more minutes of solitude. Jeff tried to look down and discern some elements of the lunar terrain, but his hatch was pointing up into the black sky. He gazed on the fuel gauge: more than enough for orbital maneuvers, reconnection with the landing module and for the trip back home. Yes, it was not something he was supposed to do, but… he made his choice.

The quiet murmur of the rotation-control nozzles was a signal for The Sparrow to start turning gently around its axis. Soon, he had the softly starlit lunar surface in his view. Sharp peaks, steep ravines and deep craters, as old as the world itself, passed with neck-breaking speed, below him. Or was it above? The lack of gravity really confused things.

Two more minutes. He better straighten his ship into proper position again. Another shot of the nozzles, and there it was, back on its feet again. Ten seconds… five… three… two… one… and right there, beyond the jagged edge of the moon, the Earth, in all its beauty and splendor WAS NOT. Jeff gave the clock a thorough examination. Yes, the time was right. The place was right. All the stars were at their proper locations. There was Regulus, and there, three degrees below it—ahem, a patch of black sky!? What the…? Was Mother Earth playing a cosmic game of Where’s Waldo? with him?

Befuddled, he tried the radio, at first calling Houston Control, then the Tycho base, then Houston again, until finally admitting: something went extremely wrong. There are things we take for granted, which form the core of our existence, and when they are gone, all we want is to end the nightmare. Jeff looked above him. The red button. No, he would have none of that now. As strange and inexplicable things looked now, there are still plenty of things he can do.

He checked his flight course: his path was to lead him 171 miles south of Tycho. Slowly and methodically, he started to run some calculations with the help of the abysmal number crunching ability of the on-board computer. If he could only outsource some calculations to Houston… But then again, if he could contact Houston, he wouldn’t be in this predicament in the first place, right?

After some time, he had his results: As he suspected, he couldn’t make the necessary change in his trajectory with one engine activation. He needed to alter it by a small angle now, and a make a small adjustment after continuing one more loop around the moon. He performed all pre-burn procedures, and programmed the main engine for an 11.5-second burn. The pressure glued him to his seat, restoring the welcome feeling of gravity once again, if only for a very short time.

Soon, he was on the dark side of the moon again. At least so his clock told him, because now both sides were equally dark and devoid of the familiar blue glow. Tick tock, tick tock. Time for the second burn, a shorter one this time. He descended lower. Even at this speed, he knew he could see the Tycho base, an island of civilization on the face of this maiden world. He passed less than a quarter-mile above the rock-strewn patch where Frost and Nakamura landed yesterday, his eyes alert to every change to the terrain. No huge reflective antenna (25 yards when unfolded). No landing module. No rover. No tracks from the rover in the lunar dust. Nothing. Another second or two, and the crater was already far behind him. Jeff tried the radio again and again. No response.

Reluctantly, his eyes rose again to observe the round red button in the ceiling of the command module. It was safely covered with a Plexiglas protector, to prevent an astronaut from pressing it inadvertently in a split second of momentary distress or even turbulence. No, pressing this particular button was only done in moments of absolute dire straits, when not a glimmer of hope loomed ahead, and after a heavy and long contemplation. At least it was a better way to end it all than crashing on the moon’s unfriendly surface.

His fingers caressed the Plexiglas cover. His thoughts roamed around from Earth to the moon and back. He didn’t want it to end like that. But if not the button, then what? Just circling around a dead planet, waiting for a miracle? A whole world doesn’t just disappear like that, you know… It’s not a minor malfunction that can be fixed in no time. He drank some water and tried the radio again, scanning every available frequency. No response. He checked his air supply. It was supposed to keep a crew of three alive during the week-long voyage back to Earth. If he used it sparingly, he could last almost a month. And then—who knows? He could still try all sorts of orbital maneuvers… But Jeff knew he was merely kidding himself. He touched the cover again, and this time he opened it, leaving the button exposed.

Two more revolutions around the moon didn’t produce any meaningful change. Jeff made up his mind. His arm went up towards the button again. With one swift motion, he replaced the cover and it closed with a light ‘click’. No. He will not end it like that. He was sent here with a job to do, and even if nobody in the universe will know that he’s doing it, he will proceed as planned. But first things first. Just in case the radio came back to life, he pushed the “Send Auto Beacon” button and increased the volume in his earphones to maximum. The next systems check was due in 2 hours and 43 minutes. He could use the sleep. Leaning back in his flight chair, Jeff closed his eyes. Soon, not only the Earth, but also the stars were gone, and he drifted into darkness.

* * * * *

“What’s he doing?”

“You wouldn’t believe it. He’s sleeping.”

“Did we have problems with the ‘Abort simulation’ button?” asked the Chief Training Coordinator.

“No, he just didn’t use it,” replied the Simulation Technician.

“That’s a first.”

“Should I wake him up?”

“No, he’ll need the sleep. Some pretty exhausting tests coming up next.”

And the Chief Training Coordinator walked away, but not before making a big fat check-mark on his clipboard, right in the middle of the “Mental Stability” box—which was located below “Intellectual Capacity” and above “Physical Stamina”.