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No Prompt! Have Fun! · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
Doubt Not the Stars Are Fire
Matthew Ben-Zvi woke before his morning alarm went off.

For a little while he stared at the window beside his bed, listening to the voices outside that had roused him. They seemed to be arguing, whoever they were – his neighbor Ms. Muriel’s distinct, harridan voice was easy to pick out, resembling as it did a chorus of electric drills. He heard a man’s voice, too, and several children shouting with excitement. They sounded close enough to be on his lawn.

Dammit, people. Matt rolled over and groped the nightstand in search of his wristwatch. The April sunlight intruding through the window curtains provided just enough light to make out the dial. Ten minutes past six.

He debated, briefly, trying to sleep for five more minutes. The fog in his mind and the promised hardship of the day, of lurching to class and struggling to lecture fifty babyish freshmen on the role of phosphorous in the environment and why they should care, all weighed heavily in favor of more sleep. Silence returned, and he closed his eyes and focused on the soft, soft pillow beneath his head.

Someone outside laughed. A moment later, his alarm went off.

Fuck it. Fine. At least it’s Friday. Matt pushed the covers away and staggered into the bathroom, where the shower easily drowned out the idiots outside.

Nothing worked miracles as well as ten minutes of hot water. By the time he stepped out of the shower, Matt had forgotten his rude awakening.

Breakfast was toast, and Matt leafed through his lecture notes while he waited for it to finish. He plucked it out of the toaster as soon as it popped up, still hot enough to burn his fingers, and rushed out the door.

After two steps he stopped dead.

The street was packed. Everyone in the neighborhood was outside, on lawns, in the streets, leaning against cars with open windows to listen to the radio. Half of them had cell phones in hand, texting and taking pictures. Some shouted, their arms windmilling in time with their voices. Here and there, clumps huddled together, hugging and crying.

What the fuck? He stared at the scene for a long moment, until a sharp burning pain in his fingers broke through the shock. He bobbled his toast, and for a split second the humiliating thought of dropping it, in front of the entire neighborhood, was the only thing that mattered.

“Matthew!” Ms. Muriel’s shrill voice brought him back to reality. She made a beeline across the yard toward him, clutching her nervous little English Spaniel in her arms like it was a doll. “What do you think it is?”

“What?” He glanced around at the chaos, then back at her. “What’s, uh, what?”

“That, of course!” She pointed a bony arm up at the sky, shifting her dog to squeeze it against her withered breasts.

Matthew looked up.

He stared until the brilliant sky began to sting his eyes. He blinked, wiped them dry, and stared again. The toast burned his fingers, and he let it fall to the ground.


High above, so high they seemed to float in orbit, bright yellow words stared down at him. They covered half the sky.


Pursuant to the Simulated Intelligence Humane Treatment Act, 30 subjective days notice is hereby provided prior to the termination of this program.


The final number, the twelve, became an eleven. And then a ten. And then a nine.

Sergeant Brianna Adkins chewed on her hoagie while the cruiser idled in a 7-11 parking lot. The meatballs were cool, but the sauce and cheese were hot enough to scald her tongue. She grimaced and wrapped the mess back in its foil to even out a bit.

Her partner, Richard Quinn, had spent too many years on the force to be bothered by such sensibilities. He chewed through his sandwich at a steady pace, like a praying mantis devouring a mealworm, until nothing remained but a wadded ball of tinfoil that he set in the drink holder between their seats.

“Mm, good stuff.” He picked something out of his teeth and flicked it out the window. “Might get another one before we leave.”

“Gotta maintain that athletic figure, huh?” She took a sip from her Diet Coke. “Why not get two more?”

“Hell, maybe I will. Doesn’t matter now, right?”

Brianna couldn’t help but glance out the window. The warning in the sky was barely visible around the edges of the roof. Twenty-six days left, it said. The pedestrians streaming past their cruiser studiously ignored it as only New Yorkers could.

“Depends what you believe, I guess,” she said. She sipped the Diet Coke again, and briefly considered going back into the store for a real Coke instead.

The people of New York City had responded to the sudden appearance of the Notification, as the media had taken to calling the message in the sky, in much the same way as people around the rest of the world – with blind, unthinking panic. Fortunately, that panic had manifested mostly as seeking out friends and loved ones, hugging them tight, and speculating wildly about what the message meant.

A national holiday had been declared, though people hardly celebrated. Shops closed, essential services limped through massive absenteeism, and Flowers.com recorded its highest day for sales in the company’s history.

By Monday things were pretty much back to normal. Or something like normal. Brianna spent a few moments staring out the window, watching traffic pass by, idly recalling what normal felt like. It wasn’t a hollow, empty feeling in her gut, she was pretty sure.

A click and hiss sounded as the radio came to life. “Command, all units. Be advised, disturbance in progress at the Washington Square Park, north side near the Arch. Responding units call in your status. Command out.”

Brianna reached for her seatbelt. “Wanna go?”

Rich shook his head and turned the volume knob on the radio, reducing the chatter as units called in to a quiet drone. “It’s a dozen blocks away. Take us half-an-hour to get there.”

“At least we’d be doing something. Better than sitting here.”

“We are doing something, young grasshopper.” He waved out the window at an elderly woman passing by with the aid of a walker. “We’re reassuring people.”

“Right.” She let out a long breath and drummed her fingers on the open window. The whole day she’d felt charged with energy, barely able to sleep. She’d gone jogging at 4 a.m., well before the sun turned the eastern sky pink with dawn. And still, a full workday worth of hours later, the urge to flail her arms and kick and scream like a toddler bubbled in her chest.

“Anyway,” she continued. “You see the president’s speech last night?”

“Yep. Was a good speech. Very classy.”

“What’d you think?”

Rich was quiet for a while. Outside, a shadow passed across the sun, casting their little part of Manhattan into temporary darkness. It wouldn’t hide the Notification, Brianna knew; the letters showed through clouds and rain and smoke and fog like they weren’t even there. Which, according to the supposed scientists who now occupied every minute of cable news, they weren’t. The Notification had no objective reality – it didn’t appear on camera, or in pictures, or cast a shadow. If you held a lens over the ground at the correct focal length, the only projected image that appeared was of clear, empty sky. If you went up in an airplane, the words appeared no closer. Even astronauts in the International Space Station couldn’t measure their distance.

The words weren’t in the sky at all. They were in the mind of every human being on Earth, in whatever language they spoke from birth. That, to Brianna, was the creepiest part.

“I think he’s doing the right thing,” Rich finally said, drawing out the words as though each one had to be carefully measured and cut. “The idea that it’s just a test, by God or Aliens or whoever… It gives people something to hang on, you know?“

“You believe it, though?” Brianna realized she was leaning forward, and forced herself to slouch back into the seat.

Rich glanced at her, then back out the window. “I thought it was a nice speech.”

Right. Brianna shoved the disappointment welling up her throat back into her chest. “That’s what he gets paid for, huh?”


They were quiet for a while after that. Silence was an easy, familiar thing between them, cultivated from countless hours of patrols like this. Brianna listened to the faint crackle of the radio, the voices outside their car, Rich’s stomach rumbling as it reluctantly processed the hoagie, and the nagging worries in the back of her mind.

“Got another one,” Rich said an hour later. He pushed his door open and stepped out. “Screamer, looks like.”

Brianna followed his gaze. Across the street, a young black man was curled in a ball against the side of a bus stop. Pedestrians gave him a wide berth as they passed, or stopped to stare as he rocked, crying.

She sighed. “Go check him out. I’ll call it in.”

Cesar Correa usually hated Algebra II.

Math was boring, difficult and completely irrelevant to his life goals, which at the age of 17 consisted of guitars and pussy. He was good at the former, and imagined he’d be pretty good at the latter if he ever had a chance to try it. Porn made it look easy, though he suspected the real thing was probably trickier than what he and his friends saw on screen.

Algebra II was different this week. It wasn’t really math, for one thing – attendance at the John Jay High School in west San Antonio had fallen dramatically, until only half the chairs in any given class actually held students. Faced with this deficit, the teachers who still showed up mostly went through the motions, reviewing old material or discussing recent events. One recent event in particular.

Cesar didn’t like math, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew therapy when he saw it.

Mr. Grayson was a big believer in therapy, Cesar judged. Their teacher had never been more animated than the first day back after the Notification appeared in the sky, and every day he sat on the edge of his desk at the front of the room, talking with the slowly shrinking class, explaining how legions of brilliant scientists (and mathematicians, of course – always mathematicians) were working non-stop to figure out who had put the Notification in the sky or in everyone’s brains and how to make it go away and how they were all going to be just fine.

Just fine. Everyone was going to be just fine. It was the school’s new motto.

Mr. Grayson was taking a short break from the “It’s Fine” refrain to demonstrate an actual math problem on the markerboard when something hit Cesar on the side of the head, rousing him from half-stupor. He jerked in his seat, drawing a few snickers from nearby students, and looked down to see a folded paper triangle fallen on his desk. The words “Wake up!” were scribbled on it in pencil.

Cesar grabbed it and tossed it back at Eric, who swatted it away easily. They both froze as Mr. Grayson stared in their direction for a moment.

“We’re leaving after this,” Eric whispered once Mr. Grayson’s gaze was back on the board. “Got some beers, gonna hang out.”

That was cool. That was really cool, but they still had two periods left before school was out. “What about class?” Cesar whispered back.

“What do you think, man? No one cares anymore. Besides, Maria’s gonna be there. Her brother bought the beer.”

That ended the discussion, as far as Cesar was concerned. He shoved his textbook into his backpack, and when the bell rang he and Eric were the first one’s out the door.

The sun-drenched Texas prairie greeted them outside. Cesar squinted at it, shading his eyes with his arm, and let the heat soak into his bones. School, though just a few feet behind them, suddenly felt miles away.

“You coming?” Eric called. He was already halfway to his beat-up old Honda. In the back, Cesar knew, their guitars were waiting for them.

Yeah, maybe this wasn’t so bad. They had better things to do than go to school.

“Good morning, thank you for coming,” Dean Halverson said from the front of the lecture hall. His voice was as reedy and raspy as always, the result of decades of hard smoking before doctors had removed one of his cancerous lungs. Still, he spoke with an air of authority unbent by his advanced years or frail physique. “I’ll try to keep this short. I know everyone is cognizant of the time.”

A few chuckles sounded from the audience in response. Rather than students, nearly four dozen University of Missouri faculty sat in the receding rows facing him. Jokes about time were all the rage these days, Matthew Ben-Zvi thought.

The professors had formed little cliques in the seats based on their specialty. As an ecologist, Matthew sat between the biology and chemistry huddles, friends with both but not quite a part of either. On the far side of the room, philosophy professors sat with a few computer scientists. The end of the world made for odd academic groupings.

The dean clicked his pointer, and the PowerPoint slide behind him shifted to an image of the clear sky. “The bottom line is that Universities are being asked to redirect their efforts toward researching the Notification. There are millions of scientists and engineers in this country, and we’ve got twenty-two days to figure out what this thing is, what it means, and how to stop it if it’s real. Collaborative workspaces are being set up in each of your departments and networked with other institutions around the country. You have carte blanche to pursue research in any direction you see fit.”

“What about funding?” someone from the physicist gaggle asked.

“Glad you asked.” The dean tapped the button for the next slide, a series of numbers appeared on the screen. “The federal reserve has issued every accredited university in the country a line of credit. Use it like you would a credit card to purchase anything relevant to your research.”

There was a quiet pause, filled with the sound of scribbling as professors wrote down the numbers. “What’s the limit?” the biophysicist seated beside Matthew asked.

“It has no limit,” Halverson said. “I’ll be reviewing your purchases at the end of each week, to make sure they’re at least somewhat justified, but the president considers this a national emergency. Just don’t get into bidding wars with other departments or universities for limited resources. Collaborate, don’t compete.”

“What about classes?” Matt asked. He didn’t see much use for an ecologist in this new scheme. Hopefully he’d still be allowed to teach.

“Classes will continue on the assumption that the world will not, in fact, be ending. Tell your students whatever you want, but be positive. There’s enough doomsaying out there without our contributions.”

“It’s not doomsaying if it’s true!” one of the philosophers said. Matt vaguely recognized his bearded face from around the quad. “We’ve understood for years that our reality—” he held up his fingers in quotes, “—could just be a simulation by some higher intelligence. The Notification is irrefutable evidence of this hypothesis.”

A chorus of shouts rose in opposition. The dean waved his arms for attention, but he’d lost the room by that point. Arguments broke out between groups and individual professors, each rehashing the same points they’d fought over for the past week.

Matt had heard it all before. He grabbed his notes and slipped out the back.

Brianna Adkins leaned against the side of the cruiser, her eyes closed behind her mirrored sunglasses. The headache that had been building all day – no, all week – was like two icepicks jammed into her sinuses. Her neck felt like a spring wound too tight, about to snap.

“You okay?” Richard asked. He paused to strip the blue nitrile surgical gloves off his hands and wad them into a ball. They were speckled with blood from the crash. “You look a bit beat.”

“I’m fine,” she lied. “It’s just, shit like this, you know?”

Shit like this, in this instance, was the mangled ruin of a red Toyota S-10 pickup, its front-half buried beneath the collapsed brick wall of an unfortunate payday loan shop. No one in the store was injured when the truck slammed into the side of the building, but the driver hadn’t been so lucky. It took nearly two hours for the fire department to pick the last of him out of the wreckage.

In her first four years on the force, Brianna had dealt with a handful of similar accidents. In the past twelve days she’d cleaned up seven more.

People just don’t care anymore. The back of the S-10 was filled with empty beer bottles and what looked like drug paraphernalia. Normally they’d send the baggies and little tin foil packages off to the lab for processing, but the district had instituted a new policy over the weekend: don’t bother.

At least there were no kids in this one. Brianna let out a shaky breath.

“Yeah, I know.” Rich leaned against the car beside her, and they watched the last ambulance pull away from the scene. It didn’t bother with lights or siren. “You’re doing good work, though. When this is all over, people’ll remember how we kept things together.”

“When it’s over.” She glanced up at the Notification, which continued its remorseless countdown. Eighteen days and change left. “What if… you know.”

He shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. The right thing to do is still the right thing to do.”

“Yeah? You gonna keep working through the end?”

Rich didn’t answer for a bit. They watched in silence as the tow-company wrecker finally arrived and set to hooking up the ruined Toyota with steel cables and chains. Bricks fell away from the hood as the winches drew tight, and with a loud squeal of rock, metal and broken glass, the truck emerged from the mess like a birth gone horribly wrong.

“Have to ask Barb,” Rich finally said.

Brianna nodded. “How’s she taking things?”

“Pretty good. Brian and Jake are coming back from Albany next week. Gonna have a reunion. You?”

“Dunno.” Brianna’s parents, still living in Maine, had made their desires clear, but she couldn’t see herself waiting out the end of the world in a small country house in the woods. Maybe she could invite them to New York.

“I think I will,” she went on. The crowd surrounding the accident had started to disperse. “I hear they’re gonna pay double.”

That got a smile from him. “Well, shit. Double! Sign me up, then.”

“Could finally get that Harley you’ve had your eye on.”

The mechanic working the wrecker was an expert, and it only took a few minutes to haul the destroyed S-10 up onto the flatbed. He chained it down and picked out loose bricks and bits of metal, tossing them back into the pile beside the ruined store. When he was done he gave them a wave and pulled out into traffic. Other cars gave him a wide berth.

Brianna waved back and got into the cruiser. Rich took the driver’s seat, and soon they were stopped in New York City traffic, rather than parked in the lot. Situation normal.

“Kinda weird, isn’t it?” Rich said while they waited for the jackass in front of them to realize the light had turned green. “Like, this all feels real. Everything outside looks real. But how do we know that?”

“Beats me. Ask John Doe back there how real the crash felt.”

“Maybe that’s what he was wondering, though. Or he wanted to go out on his terms.”

“Or maybe he just had way too much to drink?”

“Well, okay, he was an idiot,” Rich said. “Granted. But how do we know he even really existed? They had some philosopher on CNN last night, said that the simulation probably only models one or two people. Everyone else is just is just a projection or prediction or something.”

“Yeah? Which one are you?”

“Well, I think I’m a real simulation.”

“As opposed to a fake simulation?”

“You laugh,” Rich said. He applied a bit of gas and the cruiser crept forward. “But think about it. People keep saying it’s impossible to simulate an entire universe, right? So maybe the programmers or whoever don’t even try. Like in video games where the game only renders the buildings and people right around you. It just remembers the rest of it, or maybe makes a few predictions, but when I’m not around the rest of you cease to exist.”

“You sound pretty sure you’re the lucky one. I feel real too, you know. I do stuff when you’re not around.”

“Yeah, but you’d say that even if you weren’t real, because that’s what the program thinks you’d say.”

Brianna grinned. This was, somehow, the most lighthearted conversation on existentialism and death she’d had in two weeks. “Well, maybe I’m the real one, and the program just predicts you’d say that.”

“Maybe. Hey, wanna get some lunch?”


Cesar woke up in a bed that wasn’t his own.

Where the fuck am I? was his first question. Where are my pants? was a close second.

A quiet, throaty hum prefaced the shifting sheets, and a dainty, bare arm draped itself across his chest. He touched it wondrously, tracing the delicate wrist with his fingers, and turned his head to see the rest of Maria watching him silently. Her deep, chocolate eyes stood out against her mocha skin.

Right. Last night. The memories came back swiftly – playing the guitar around a bonfire in the sagebrush of an empty San Antonio lot. A cooler full of warm beer. This girl, this classmate he’d lusted after, imagined naked for better than a year, crying as she huddled against his side. Then the walk to her house, and to her bed, and everything that followed. Well, shit.

“Hey.” It came out as a broken squeak, and he cleared his throat. “Uh, hey. Morning.”

“Hi,” she whispered. After a moment she pulled her arm back to hold over her small breasts. She crossed her legs, hiding the tiny thatch of dark hair between them.

Cesar realized he was staring. But that was fine, wasn’t it? They’d done it, so it should be okay. He felt himself stirring at the memory, and he pulled the sheets up over his hips.

Maria giggled. “I’m, um, going to get dressed. Do you want to use the shower?”

It wasn’t a question, though it was phrased like one. Girls were good at that. Cesar nodded and crawled out of the bed, doing his best to face away from her and keep from embarrassing himself any further.

He had a lot to think about in the shower.

Maria was dressed and sitting on the bed when he came out. She’d folded his old clothes and set them neatly on the covers.

He clutched the towel around his waist. It was silly, he knew; she’d already seen him naked. She’d done far more than just see him naked. So why was it so hard to put the towel down and get dressed?

The silence stretched out for a moment, until Maria finally stood. She gave him a light peck on the cheek, her palm resting on his bare chest. “I’m going to make some breakfast. Want anything?”

“Uh, yeah. Yeah.” The squeak was back in his voice. “Whatever you’ve got.”

“Okay.” She left the door open a crack, and lingered beyond it just long enough to part with a final smile before heading downstairs.

Later, when they were both seated at a small table in a small kitchen, eating the omelets she had scrambled while he dressed and shook with anxiety upstairs, it finally occurred to Cesar that they seemed to be alone in the house.

“Where’s your parents? Your brother?”

“Joseph spent the night with ‘Gellica. He’s been doing that a lot lately.” Maria’s tone made it clear how she felt about Angellica, but Cesar knew better than to pursue that line of inquiry. “Momma and Poppa are still working. They say the Notification is just a trick by the devil, and when it’s over the people who stayed faithful and did their jobs will be rewarded.”

That was the Catholic Church’s official line. Cesar’s parents carried a little brochure with them, printed by the diocese with verses from the bible and the text of the Pope’s speech the day after the Notification appeared. He had a copy, somewhere in his bedroom. Maria probably did too.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” She stared down at her eggs. “If it’s real, then the people running the program must be very cruel. Why would they torture us like this?”

“Maybe they think they’re being nice.”

“They’re not. They’re monsters.” She stabbed at her omelet and set the fork down without taking a bite.

“What should they do, then? Just run it forever? If this is all just a simulation, then nothing we do matters.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him. “I don’t agree.”

He tried not to stare, he really did. But her forearms cradled and emphasized her breasts, and the thin cotton barely concealed the tips of her nipples. When he finally looked up she had a little smile on her lips, and they both blushed.

“So, uh…” Before he could say more, his phone buzzed with a text. He read it quickly. “Hey, Eric wants to know if we wanna hang out. You game?”

Maria frowned. “Momma wants me to go to school still.”

“You can go to school after this is over.”

“What if… you know.”

He shrugged. “Then why go to school? Why not have fun now?”

She pondered that for a little while. She blinked her eyes rapidly, and wiped them with the back of her hand.

Shit. Fuck. You made her cry, you idiot. Cesar opened his mouth to apologize, but she spoke before he could.

“Yeah, okay.” She sniffed. “That sounds fun.”

“Oh, cool.” His eyes drifted back down, and he decided to take a shot. “You, uh, wanna do it before we head out?”

Her answer was much faster in coming this time. She smiled and walked around the table, took his hand, and led him back upstairs.

The Mizzou Department of Philosophy had, unexpectedly, become the happeningest place on campus during the past two weeks. Professors who seldom entertained more than one or two graduate students per semester were suddenly flooded with visitors, from politicians to clergy to everyday people, each of whom was convinced that they had deduced the truth behind the Notification. The secretary who greeted Matthew when he arrived on Tuesday morning seemed frazzled and overwhelmed by the attention.

“Professor Ben-Zvi?” She looked between him and the printed calendar on her desk. “Go on back. Professor Abrams is waiting for you.”

The hallway leading to the dean’s office was lined with supplicants. A woman dressed in a black chador read from a tiny book while she waited in a tiny folding chair. Two toddlers played with matchbox cars on the floor, making whooshing-noises as they rolled the toys across the carpet. An Army major, in his full dress uniform with white gloves and ceremonial sabre at his side, gave Matthew a tiny nod as they passed.

Halloween, or the Philosophy Department at the end of the world? Matthew shook his head and knocked on the door of his old friend’s office.

“Matthew!” Omar’s booming voice answered. The giant to whom it belonged charged around the large walnut desk in the center of the room and wrapped Matt in a hug that would have crushed a lesser man. “Two weeks! It took two weeks for you to realize this is where you belong?”

“Busy with classes,” Matthew said when he had enough room to draw a breath. “Some kids keep coming. Don’t want to disappoint them.”

“Pff, undergraduates,” Omar waved a hand dismissively, apparently not caring that an entire hallway of undergraduates could hear them. “That’s what TAs are for. Your department has a thousand of them from China alone.”

“And they all went back to China.” Matt took a seat in the offered chair. It was soft and luxurious and nearly large enough to swallow him whole. Standing back up was going to be an effort. “Also, that’s racially insensitive. We have TAs from lots of countries.”

“But mostly China?”

“Well, yes. Most of them are from China,” Matt conceded. “Or, they were. Assuming China really exists.”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” Dean Abrams pulled a bottle of gin and two shot glasses out out of a little cabinet behind his desk. He poured as he spoke. “For that matter, what if the University of Missouri is the only thing that exists, and everywhere else, and everyone else, is just dreamed up on the fly to maintain the simulation of a functioning university?”

“Well, I’m from Boston, so Boston probably exists too. Also, what do you mean by ‘exist’?“

“To posses qualia,” Omar’s voice took on a lecturing cadence. “To have a subjective reality. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if you’re a simulation or a real meat-and-atoms physical being. If you feel you are real, then you have qualia, and you exist, regardless of whether you’re a simulation.”

“So we both exist, then? That’s a relief.” Matt took a sip of the gin and tonic. Only a few departments could get away with drinking alcohol during office hours, and Environmental Science wasn’t one of them.

“To be fair, I only know for sure that I exist,” Omar countered. “Even if you had no qualia, if you were just a script being performed by the program, you would say that you did, because the script calls for real people. However, since we’re friends and we’ve known each other for a while, I’m willing to grant that you might also be a real person, simulated or otherwise.”

“I’ll drink to that.” Matt did so. “You think it’s true, then?”

“I’m confident it is. No other explanation – God, aliens, mass hallucination, whatever – fits the facts as neatly. I’m afraid your scientist friends are probably wasting their time, and there’s not much time left to waste.”

“It’s better than waiting to die, or be turned off, or whatever. What do you think we should be doing?”

“What makes humans special is our ability to think and communicate. So, I think we should think and communicate.”

“Well, we are, aren’t we?”

Omar nodded and took another sip. “Yes. It’s been a pretty good two weeks, in my opinion.”

“You’re not worried about the end?”

A shrug. “We all die someday, Matthew. If this is a simulation, which I expect it is, then what matters far more is how we behave in the time we have left.”

The gin and tonic suddenly tasted very sour. Matt spat his mouthful back into the glass and set it on the desk. “Lovely. So, aside from waiting for death, what does the philosophy world have planned?”

Omar smiled. It was a huge thing, a cheshire cat’s grin, and spoke of mischief. “Glad you asked. Did you pass an Army officer out in the hallway?”

“Huh? Yeah. Don’t tell me the US military is working with philosophers, now.”

“Of course they are. We have the best ideas, after all.”

Brianna Adkins had seventeen minutes left on her shift when the firefight broke out.

“Command, all units.” The radio came to life with a hiss, breaking the tense evening monotony. “211 Robbery in progress, 154 Ludlow, Dolce Vita. Proprietor reports large mob ransacking store. Shots indicated. Proceed with caution. Reporting units call in your status.”

“Shit.” Rich hit the lights and siren, blasting out into traffic after only a quick look for clearance. “313 Dispatch, 417. Run code on that 211. ETA three mikes.”

Brianna scrambled to fasten her seatbelt and gripped the cruiser’s oh-shit handle as Rich made a particularly sharp turn to clear an intersection. “Dolce Vita? That’s a fucking shoe store.”

“Yeah, well, people wanna look good for the end of the world.” He leaned into the horn and nearly sideswiped an ancient black Cadillac that was slow moving to the side. “Oh, fuck me. Is that it?”

Brianna looked up to see the source of the call. The Dolce Vita store was in a nice part of Manhattan, with clean streets even three-and-a-half weeks after the Notification and the slow decay of city services. Trash hadn’t piled up on the sidewalks like in some other boroughs. It was still a safe place to walk at night.

Or, it had been. The mob spilling out of the storefronts a block away didn’t seem to care much about trash or safety. Smoke billowed out of the Dolce Vita’s broken picture windows, and in the seconds it took their cruiser to reach the chaos the looters had turned their attention to other stores. Flames lit the dark sidewalk beneath their feet.


“Get the rifle.” Rich brought the cruiser to a squealing stop just feet from the nearest looters. Most ran, but one teen, braver or stupider than the others, aimed a kick at the car’s bumper before retreating.

“ATTENTION.” Rich’s voice boomed out of the cruiser’s loudspeaker as Brianna jumped out and ran around to the trunk. “THIS IS AN ILLEGAL GATHERING. DISPERSE IMMEDIATELY.”

The AR-15 was in a locked case. It took an eternity to find the right keys and open both locks while Rich attempted to disperse the crowd. A rock cracked against the windshield, spiderwebbing the glass but not shattering it.

“Shit shit shit.” Brianna yanked the rifle out and chambered a round, taking a supported position over the open passenger door. “I’m up!”

Rich pushed his door open and piled out, crouching behind it with his pistol drawn. “Help’s on the way. Should be here in less than a min—”

A loud pop interrupted him. His door’s window shattered, raining glass down the back of his uniform. More pops followed. Something tugged at Brianna’s sleeve. The flashing blue and red strobe beside her face exploded and went dark.

In front of them, the crowd parted like the Red Sea before Moses, leaving the shooter suddenly exposed. He looked around, as if surprised to be alone, then raised the gun again.

Brianna flicked the safety off with her thumb and put the red dot on the man’s chest. The copper-jacketed round blew through his sternum, bisected his heart, severed his spine, and kept going until it struck a flowerpot a hundred yards down the street.

It was the easiest shot she’d ever taken. She spent the next hour shaking in the cruiser's back seat.

The block party was the craziest thing Cesar had ever seen.

There were drugs, beer and fireworks, all of which had obvious purposes. But he didn’t understand why someone had raided the nearby Dick's Sporting Goods and stolen, of all things, dozens of metal-and-cloth cots and set them up in the shadows between the bonfires. Then he saw a couple, naked, lying on one and making out. A small crowd cheering them on, sloshing their beers on the broken concrete as they filmed with their phones. One man, either drunk or stoned or just not caring any more, had a hand down his own pants as he watched.

So, that was a thing. Cesar gripped Maria’s hand a little tighter. He hoped she didn’t mind his sweaty palms.

“Are you okay?” she whispered. “We can go home if you want. Back to my place, maybe?”

“Nah, it’s cool.” He snagged two beers from an open cooler and gave one to Maria. She eyed it nervously, but took a little sip at his urging and made a face.

“It gets better after you’ve had a few,” he said.

“Yeah.” Maria took a longer swallow and glanced around the scene. The block was packed with hundreds of people now, most of them high schoolers or young adults. Her eyes lingered on the naked couple, and Cesar could see the flush in her face even in the bonfire’s dancing light.

“Loco,” she mumbled.

He was about to agree when a brilliant red glare and shrieking whistle broke the silence. A firework shot into the air from just a dozen yards away, soaring high into the sky before exploding with a flash so bright he felt its heat on his face. Seconds later the concussion hammered his chest and left his ears ringing. The smoke slowly drifted to the east, toward the glow of San Antonio in the distance.

Another firework filled the sky. Its glare concealed, for just a moment, the Notification glowering down at them still. Just over three days remained on the countdown.

“They’re starting!” someone shouted. Others echoed the call, and soon everyone’s attention was on the projection screen set up at the end of the block. A live feed from CNN flickered to life, dominated by a white anchor who was probably famous or something.

The loudspeakers squealed, then settled into the program audio. “—about four minutes out at this point. Dr. Abrams, can you walk us through the plan?”

The screen switched to a swarthy, bearded man with the kind of glasses Cesar’s grandfather wore. “Yes, thank you, Anderson. As most of your audience knows, the government has been working on multiple lines of inquiry since the Notification appeared. Tonight’s project, which we call ‘Spotlight,’ is the culmination of one of those efforts.”

The image shifted to a graphic of the earth, rendered as a globe in space. The perspective shifted so the camera looked down on the north pole, and the doctor’s narration continued.

“One of the things we’ve wondered since the Notification appeared is what, exactly, the Programmers were trying to simulate. We assume it’s us, but for all we know the simulation is about global ocean currents, and humans just happen to be a byproduct of the program.”

“That doesn’t sound very encouraging, Doctor,” the anchor noted.

“I suppose it isn’t, but it raised an interesting idea. What if we get the Programmer’s attention? Let them know we want to talk about this, have our voices heard. So we got our heads together and realized that the most attention-getting thing we have is the nation’s nuclear arsenal.”

“And the plan?”

The graphic shifted while the doctor spoke. Tiny bright pinpoints appeared in some ordered pattern over the arctic ice. “Starting in a few minutes, the military will be detonating almost four-hundred warheads of various sizes in the atmosphere over Arctic Circle. We’re hopeful that, whatever the nature of the simulation is, this will at least get the Programmer's’ attention. Maybe convince them to talk.”

“How will we know if it works?”

“Well, we won’t, until we do. But people throughout the continental United States should be able to see the lights, if they look north.”

Which way was north? Cesar spun in a circle, trying to orient himself to the local streets. He only stopped when Maria’s hand gripped his shoulder, and she pointed at the dark horizon.

It was starting to glow. A faint green light, like the aurora, spread out over them. Tiny white flashes, like distant camera bulbs, began to appear amidst the stars.

The crowd hooped and hollered. Overhead, the Notification ground remorselessly down.

Brianna Adkins leaned against a traffic barrier in Times Square. It was filthy with grease and asphalt smearings, and was making a mess of her dress uniform pants, but the black cloth showed nothing. And she would never have to clean it again.

She’d worked Times Square on New Years Eve several times. This crowd was quieter, smaller. Like the rest of the city these days. But the people who showed up all wanted to party.

Something bumped her shoulder, and she turned to see Richard. He was in civilian clothes now, and looked older this way. White gauze bandages wrapped around the back of his neck and bulked out the back of his shirt.

“Evening, Lieutenant,” he said. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the bedlam. “Congratulations on the promotion, by the way.”

“Thanks. The pay’s better, and I’m getting double tonight, too.”

He grinned at the joke, then turned and waved. Off in the crowd, a woman waved back, and she weaved her way over to join them. Two young men followed close behind.

“You’ve met Barb,” Rich said. “And these are Jake and Brian, our sons. They’re visiting from Albany.”

Yeah, visiting. The lie didn’t even phase her now. She smiled and shook their hands. “Boys, good to meet you. Your father taught me everything I know about being a cop.”

“Hope he taught you to duck better than he does,” one of them – Jake, maybe? – said. He mimed brushing something away from Rich’s bandaged neck.

“He tried. Hopefully we’ll never find out.” The memory of last week no longer bothered her. If anything, she wished she’d fired sooner.

“Oh, look!” Barb pointed up at the skyline. “They’re getting the ball ready!”

Brianna wasn’t sure if it was morbid or hopeful or naive, but the city had decided to haul out the New Year’s ball and set it up in Times Square, just like they did for the actual New Year’s countdown. Except this time they were counting down to the end of the Notification and whatever it would bring.

Something new, hopefully. A reward for their faith. An apology from the Programmers and permission to continue existing. Some new program altogether.

Or maybe, she worried, and she knew everyone else worried as well, the ball would come down, and then nothingness would follow. They would never know.

“Excuse me, officer!” A young woman draped in strings of beads and little else shouted. A gaggle of girlfriends, equally dressed, hung on her shoulders, and her voice was a tad slurred. The red dixie cup in her hand left little doubt as to why. “Can we get a picture with you?”

Brianna smiled. They were under orders to enforce the law with discretion, and toplessness was legal in New York City anyway. “Sure. Careful with the drink, though.”

Rich grinned as the girls crowded around and fumbled to take selfies. His two boys seemed fully interested as well. When the girls stumbled off for someone else to molest, he punched her in the shoulder.

“Look at you, a model of police-civil relations.”

“Yeah, yeah.” She grinned and shook her head. “Hey, thanks for coming, by the way.”

“I couldn’t leave you hanging.” He wrapped an arm around his wife’s waist and drew her closer. “Besides, here’s as good a place as any.”

It was, Brianna decided. It really was. She removed her patrol cap and looked up at the sky.

Three hours remained.

Cesar discovered something about beer at the final party: seven was too many.

He was sick in a bush for a while, and felt someone rubbing his back. Maria, perhaps? He really should go find her.

He stumbled back toward the bonfires. Someone put another beer in his hand, and he took a swig to wash out the acid taste of vomit. Then he swallowed the rest for good measure.

“Maria?” He couldn’t tell who was who in the darkness. The bonfires provided a false, flickering light that hid more than it revealed. Couples danced in the booming music, or sat together, or lay together. “Maria?”

He bumped into someone and slurred an apology. They waved him off, and he wandered around to another bonfire.

In time, with effort, he found her. She was sitting on a cot with Eric. They were kissing. His hand crept up the hem of her shirt, fondling her.

They didn’t see him, Cesar realized. He watched for a while, until the anger faded, and he became numb.

He grabbed another beer, turned, and walked into the night.

Cesar woke in a house that wasn’t his own. He wasn’t in a bed, though – just crumpled on the floor. His leg hurt, and he rolled over to see a screen door torn off its hinges and lying askew. He pushed away an overturned coffee table and tried to stand.

The floor swayed, and he fell against a couch. “Fuck.” He pushed it until it tipped onto its back, spilling another end table over with a visceral racket. Something shattered in the darkness.

“Fuck!” he shouted. The sight of Maria, her shirt coming off over her head, exposing herself to Eric’s hands, filled his mind. He swung wildly and felt his hand connect with something hard. A bookcase toppled with another crash. His fingers throbbed, worse than they had when he broke them playing basketball years ago, but he barely felt the pain.

“Fuck! Fuck her! Fuck all of them!” He screamed until he couldn’t scream any more, and then he cried amidst the wreckage of his life.

The lights came on, banishing the darkness and leaving him blind. He blind away tears, and saw a middle-aged black man standing at the base of the stairs. He had a double-barreled shotgun pointed at Cesar’s chest.

Oh fuck. Oh fuck. He felt himself starting to shake. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m, I’m… I’m in the wrong house, I’m sorry. P-please. Please.” He held his hand out, as if it could ward off a shotgun blast. “Please don’t shoot me. I just, just… I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die, man.”

He couldn’t see through his tears. A swimming, sickening vertigo welled up in his chest, and he fell to his knees. He couldn’t remember Maria’s face anymore, or Eric's. Only the Notification. “I don’t want to die,” he mumbled the mantra. “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.”

There was a long pause. In time, Cesar felt a pair of strong arms wrap him in a tight embrace. He leaned against the stranger’s shoulder and sobbed.

The Ashland Wildlife Research Area was just a few miles southeast of Mizzou. Matthew Ben-Zvi had special permission as a research scientist to enter the reserve, and tonight he abused it.

It was not an egregious abuse. He found a quiet hill, surrounded by ash and maple trees, and lay on his back to watch the heavens.

The sky was clear and moonless. The bright yellow letters of the Notification didn’t drown out the stars, for the letters existed only in his mind. His eyes adapted to the night as though they weren’t there.

Only a few minutes remained. The wind tousled his hair, bringing with it the distant scent of pines, and he marvelled that all around him might just be bits of data. Electrons flowing through some substrate. It seemed impossible. It required an act of faith.

He wasn’t a religious man, not any longer, but he had a small Torah in his breast pocket. He ran a finger along the pages, marvelling at how real they felt. Overhead, the Notification ticked down the last of its time.

He ran a finger along the pages, marvelling at how real they felt. Overhead, the Notification ticked down the last of its time.

—marvelling at how real they felt. Overhead, the Notification ticked down the last of its time.

—how real they felt. Overhead,

Notification ticked down—

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#1 · 3
Well, this was well written, Author, of that I'm sure.

Your descriptions are evocative, and your prose is tight; your story flows fairly well, and the concepts are interesting. I appreciated the structured approach you took, and the fact that you chose distinct locations and names to set them apart, so I wasn't disoriented by all the jumping around. You turn a few nice phrases (breakfast was toast) and you're careful about your paragraphs and sentences. Most everything reads cleanly and clearly.

However... I did have problems. Two big ones, really.

Firstly, that ending. I'm not really a fan of noncommittal endings. I have a hard time caring enough to fill in the blanks for you, to write an ending for your story if you're not interested enough to write your own. It really takes a story that grabs me deeply and powerfully for me to enjoy an ending like that. This may be a failing of mine, but there it is; if you're telling me a story, I want to hear what you think. I deeply dislike 'guess what I'm thinking of'.

And that - not deeply caring - is really the crux of my second problem; I didn't really care about much of anything that was going on in this story. It's not new or interesting to me; perhaps you'll find a better audience in other readers, but this isn't, as your simulated philosophers pointed out, a 'new' idea, nor does it present any particularly interesting examinations of it.

I didn't really care about your characters very deeply, either. They aren't, I think, entirely cardboard, but they don't really seem to have much existence beyond being set-pieces for you, either. Sure, they're 'struggling' with this idea, but you don't resolve that, you don't make it intensely personal to any of them, or go beyond simple tragedy, ennui, or confusion. All in all, I didn't find their mundane apocalypse intriguing or enthralling, or their small slices of life to be very interesting or even sad. Especially with that noncommittal ending undercutting any feelings I might have in one direction or the other.

Well, perhaps I'm biased; it takes a rare apocalypse story to interest me deeply. The whole genre is kinda boring to me.

Oh, I did have a nitpick or two. A word on how this was communicated to blind people, or people who couldn't read, would have been worth having, I think.

Also, on the nukes... IIRC, detonating nukes, especially in the upper atmosphere, produces ridiculously strong EMP pulses. I don't know what the fallout from that sort of thing would be, but with the amount of bombs you're setting off, I wouldn't be surprised if large parts of the simulation were punted back to the stone ages. Perhaps they thought the fallout was excusable, though.

All in all, this is a well-executed story. However, it absolutely fails to grab me in any meaningful way. I apologize, Author, and I wish you better luck with your other readers.
#2 · 6
Here we go, first up on my slate.

Mechanically speaking, you've got a really strong presence. The prose flows quite beautifully. This is an easy read to get through, and additionally the choice of scene structuring felt very sound. I think you stuck with everyone for the right amount of time, switched between them in a sensible and fulfilling order, and filled in both the time passing and individual arcs at a solid, non-frustrating pace. That can be difficult to pull off in this type of structuring; it'd be easy to ignore a character whose story is less viscerally exciting than others, or make a specific scene drag on too long. Everything feels well planned and solidly executed.

As for the story itself, it feels a little pat to me. There's a sense of having gone through an 'it's the end of the world and people are reacting to it' greatest hits montage. The specifics of the Armageddon aren't particularly integrated—there's the usual spec fic exploration of what it is and maybe why it is, but that's just there to sell the ambiguity and fuel the philosophical discussions for the characters. It could have been a classic biblical end times signs and had the same beats and points for that element. The simulated-world philosophical side had a stronger integration, but wasn't in and of itself integrated with the Armageddon theme very conclusively. They're sort of parallel to each other, and in being parallel the stakes are a bit lower. After all, if the world is ending, the nature of self doesn't really matter at all.

The inconclusive nature of the ending then tried to sell the sense of self/simulated world philosophical points as the more important element to consider, but that's hampered by the attention-grabbing nature of the apocalypse stuff from earlier, and I'm afraid that keeps it from really, actually selling itself.

Were it me, I'd suggest severely curtailing the world ending angle. If the Notification was about, like, routine maintenance to install updates or something, (lol, Windows OSes), a lot of the story could be left alone, but the focus would be shifted towards the sense-of-self issues. Some things would need slight restructuring, but not very much, and I think it would sell the ending and thematic poignancy stronger.

Overall, though, should have a fairly strong spot on my slate. It was an enjoyable read.
#3 · 3
The intro seemed a bit choppy in places, but the story soon settled down and read smoothly.

Well, that premise is a whopper. My first thought on seeing it: it would be one hell of a twist for the message to have just been something displayed by a bunch of aliens for shits and giggles. Save them the trouble of destroying the world when we do it ourselves. That was later shot full of holes by additional detail about the nature of the notification. Oh well.

The characters were well developed and provided good perspectives. While not particularly meaningful and with no overarching connections, they nevertheless do a good job of showcasing humanity, and it fits the overall theme of the piece.

The biggest issue I had was the believability of the reactions of the general public. I was surprised by the ‘returned to normal’ - I would have expected mass lunacy. The various rationalizations employed made sense, but I would have expected virtually complete absenteeism outside of those few jobs with an innate sense of fulfilment, and many more breakdowns of order.

I felt like the prose was generally tight, and I spotted few mechanical glitches.

Overall I liked it and consider it a very strong story, despite you having a more optimistic take on human nature than I do, which ended up stretching my suspension of disbelief.
#4 · 3
Interesting story based on a relatively widely discussed idea. I think the philosophical foundation of the story was quite solid, and while it wasn't the real focus, it was a good framework for showcasing something different.

I've seen this mainly as a deeply humane story, about the struggle to go through life with a inhumane, incomprehensible deadline hanging at the horizon. Something so deeply outside our experience most people really don't comprehend it.

I loved this story, the writing was great and I deeply cared and felt for the characters. This goes to the top of my slate, and I'm thankful to the author for having written it.

The ending was also perfect for me, even if it seems it didn't work for others.

“Huh? Yeah. Don’t tell me the US military is working with philosophers, now.”

“Of course they are. We have the best ideas, after all.”

And here I became afraid.
#5 · 1
Хорошо, вот еще один обзор, потому что CiG сказал что нам нужно исправить что есть только 4 отзывы здесь. Кроме того, я обещал Dubs что мои обзоры были на русском языке, и он призвал меня написать больше. Это его вина.

Предпосылка этой истории интересно, но я чувствую что это не выкроить достаточное историю от него. Это просто окно в жизнь нескольких персонажей как раз тикает вниз. У меня есть трудное время заботы об этих персонажей, и я не чувствую что есть на самом деле что-то значительное происходит с ними. Это как, ситуация они помещаются в интересно, и вещи просто случаются. Это не поможет что—как сказал другой—я бы думал что массовой паники будет в этой ситуации. Все это кажется довольно ручными. Плюс эти ядерное оружие.

Насколько я могу сказать, написание кажется твердо.

Я хотел бы выразить словами лучше почему эта история не работает для меня. Но у меня нет такой большой проблем с окончанием как имеет с другие люди.

Оценка: Финляндия.
#6 · 3
· · >>Monokeras
This was a very interesting one. It was so well composed, that I didn’t mind some missing details or more descriptions in the storyline. Here we find several chunks of human lives reacting to an ominous message in the sky. Claiming that a major event will take place in one month’s time. We do not get just one story but several. Not one character but multiple. Which was very interesting for a short story idea. It must have been really hard to plan and work on. The way the author weaves this tale makes it seem like he was toiling over a boiling pot. Carefully adding seasoning after seasoning after seasoning. Well, I for one, just love what came out of the pot as a result. Needless to say that this story came out, not like a thin like soup quality, but a very rich and flavorful curry style. Leaving much to taste and admire in the wake of the author’s efforts.

The story comes in chunks, as mentioned before. While this is very tricky to handle and often times leaves a reader to lose interest within a story, the author does it very well to keep attnetion in the one thing they all have in common. That the end is coming and that each person has their own way of coping with the up and coming finale. From Brianna’s fearful thoughts, to Cesar’s denial leading to anger, and even Matthew’s curiosity. Each character played a role to showcase a different type of reaction within each storyline. As small as each one was, it still played a huge part on the ending and fits well for the single conflict that each one must confront. Another advantage this story holds is that having multiple storylines make it easier for a reader to drop and pick up at a later time. Thus giving the reader room to relax find a drink or a snack before moving onwards with the next storyline. This was highly refreshing. As I didn’t need to stick with the story to keep my head immersed. I could just push everything aside and keep an open mind for what was next to come. Even as the author by passes days to shorten the story, all is forgiven as there is just so much content potential in the story. Intentionally leaving out the more boring parts, made the story pop out more as there was a good natural balance between the several characters. While this was well done, I couldn’t help but feel it was all for naught. As strangely as the author places so much hard work defining each character. The ending just kinda dabbles in and trickles out as if the big boom we’re waiting for was just a small ripple in the uneasy tide.

This was by far the biggest thing to talk about for the whole story. No matter what I read or what the characters themselves would do, everyone was reminded of the the mental sign in the sky. Something so simple created a panic among the world. Humanity trying to desperately hold on to something they just couldn’t understand for themselves. We see viewpoints from the common citizens to officials of both law enforcement and education facilities try to work out angles on how to beat this unforeseen and unpredictable fate. It even hints at what the government was trying to do in order to work out a solution. We see people dealing with their lives through acting out and feeding their desires or trying to ignore the possibilities of an actual end and maintain their sanity through work and study. This is what made this so realistic. To where you can understand the concerns and adrenaline pumping through their veins or the numbed hearts and minds of being threatened all the time. This I could relate to on a whole different scale with my own past experiences. This is what made the story. Though sadly it’s not justified with the way the story ended.

This was the biggest problem in the story. The impact right as the story ends just left me with nothing but questions and an unsatisfied feeling. The content was well written and planned. The characters and events were easy to follow and entertained me on many levels. Hitting the mark each and every twist and turn of the story. Even I felt like I was a citizen in the story wishing that the end wouldn’t come, as I made a connection with each character. Reading their thoughts and admiring how they indulged things in the last final moments of their life. Or dealing with certain strifes that scratched away at their very souls. By far, the biggest point of the story, faltered by the end. With a record scratch on the last dozen words of the story. Which made no sense to me. I had to stop and think about how this ended or what the author intended. Which my theory is, that all of life stopped in place, cutting off the mental functions of every human, animal, and plant alive. The spark of life held within each vessel suddenly coming to a halt as if, by the flick of a switch. Created nothing else but empty shells of beating heated flesh in it’s wake. This is characterized by the record skip. When a track is abruptly stopped or needs to be reset. With no explanation to this outcome, the author effectively kills the ending by leaving out a simple description as to the real events. The possibilities were by far the largest quantity, I’ve seen in an unanswered “imagine it yourself” type of ending. Thus creating a very big deadpan feel to the story.

I could barely find negatives for this story, but when I did, it was of some of the simpler things within the content that I’ve found to be lacking. I’m not sure if you were racing time or you just ran out of rounds in that impressive gun of yours, but I felt the strain of your story affecting the way you wrote. Basic errors such as missing words or weird descriptions threw me off at the last one third of your story. Brianna mentioning her neck was like a spring without having to stretch her neck, or her having to shoot earlier when you mentioned that the crowd had to part away from the shooter before she could get a shot in. The scene with Cesar And this is just to point out a few. It felt like the author may have been starting to run on fumes at a certain point and in turn affected me. This is not a major issue but is an issue. I wanted to point it out as you should be calm and collected for your story. Take your time plan it out and try not to worry much about words. Your story did fantastic on it’s own. Don’t ever kill yourself for your own content. The amount of effort you placed in your story is great. I normally never mention spelling or grammar, as they are such basic means of improvement and eventually get fixed on their own over time. Please understand I just needed to find another trait of the story to point out. That is the only reason it’s in here now. With just a few errors to note and mention I still say! Well done on an excellent piece.

Now this took several readings to even catch. The writer does very well keeping your head on the current threat endangering the lives of this city, that you seem to forget the minor events taking place within the multitude of lives being featured. When a character was feeling something I just didn’t care. I wanted to see more of the end result of the warning in the sky, besides knowing what a horny teenager wanted or a firefight between a thief and a cop. It was hidden quite well, but could have been better to light things up within the story. I didn’t feel Brianna shaking in her car seat, but she was nevertheless. I didn’t seem to follow Cesar’s pain or how he ended up toppling over a bookshelf on it’s side and not get hurt. Worst of all I couldn’t follow Matthew’s record-skipping like mind as his thoughts rewinded in turn again and again and again until nothing. The anticipation of the other things in this story was hindered by the real conflict of the plot(HAH! I said PLOT!). While we may not have cared about it, it could have been more of a highlight adding to the supposed drama of a character’s life. These points should have made more of a bang in the minds of it’s readers, thought it read and felt like it was tacked on. Even with the main ending being the real reason to read on, these events could have easily made the ending better if they were emphasised more.

This read was impressive. A different style for a great read. While I say it often, this one took me by surprise with how little I knew about each character and still ended up feeling satisfied with it. The high points of the story did bother me and ended up breaking my thought process, but was overlooked with how well the story flowed out on it’s own. Giving me something to think about in many many perspectives. From how a teenager would think, to an official of the law, or a brilliant professor. Though I was rooting for the Philosophers (WOOT WOOT TO MY HOMEBOYS!). The story read well enough to keep me on edge for the end. Though the main problems were the climaxes for each character branch being bland and then that ending. (Probably because I’ve had personal experiences with each of those conflicts in my own life that I just didn’t agree with it in my head.) So I found myself flopping back on the backrest of my chair to this one. In an economical point of view, the author did well to focus on points of the story to always give you something new to think about. From innocence to the responsible authorities, this is a good read for those interested in politics to slice of life genres.
#7 ·
· · >>Remedyfortheheart
Jeez. Your reviews are not reviews, they are stories of their own! ;)
#8 ·
· · >>Monokeras
I write to write. Strangely enough, I don't plan em. I just write em right after the read. Telling my piece is nothing special. these are really fun to do though. I just did two!
#9 ·
Well I hope you do enjoy writing your reviews, otherwise it'd be really an ordeal given their length. But okay, I mean, that's so nice for the authors to get such detailed feedback! I, on the other hand, can barely write more than a few bland paragraphs.

Anyway. Keep up the good work! 💙
#10 · 2
The first thing I'm noticing here is that the first two scenes both feature a character eating something so hot that it burns them. I'm choosing to believe this is important.

Silence was an easy, familiar thing between them, cultivated from countless hours of patrols like this.

Very nice line.

Man, this fic is straight-up straddling the M line.
...I know what I said.

This is nitpicking, but if you ever look to market this to a more general audience, I might change the university to something other than Mizzou. Not that Mizzou isn't a lovely place, but considering recent events, it's going to have some distracting connotations in the minds of readers.

...Well that was an abrupt ending. It's not even a Lady and the Tiger type thing. It's just building tension then stopping short. In the words of a great Irishman: It "felt a bit like calling the safe word before the golden shower. Just disappointing."
EDIT: see later comment

Cesar's arc was the most interesting, and it took me a little while to understand the point of Brianna's. Compared to those two, Matthew both felt like a very bland character, and had a lackluster story arc. Matthew never seemed to have much of a personality. He was just kinda going along with the plot.
#11 · 1
...I only just realized what's going on in this ending. Man, I'm stupid.

However, looking at it again, I'm also realizing one new criticism: I loved Cesar's arc, except for his ending. I get what you're trying to do—unknown man embraces him in their final hours—but it feels lackluster. Needs more meat to it.
#12 ·
Okay, last story I'm going to read this round. What do I know going in? Cold in Gardez says he doesn't think this is Sci-Fi, and a lot of people seem to disagree. Also, I have some reason to think this is going to play a bit like Lucifer's Hammer. Which was nominated for the Hugo in 1978. Last story was a Hugo-derivative, could this one be too? Probably not, but I kinda feel like maybe you guys need to read some more classic spec-fic... (-.-)

5 – Doubt Not the Stars Are Fire

Pretty naturalistic opening. Doesn't do much to catch me, but doesn't do much to lose me either. Given that I've seen the trailer for this movie, I'm wondering how Hollywood we're going to go—and I'm hoping that phosphorous isn't going to be a key reason why everyone's about to die, because that's literally as Hollywood as it's possible to go. Then again, foreshadowing. Anyway, we'll see.

For a minute, when Ms. Muriel told Matthew to look up, I thought this was going to go full-on Lucifer's Hammer... but I was wrong! I guess everyone's just a computer simulation, and somebody's going to shut down the program. I guess that rules out phosphorous, so good job there!

Nice use of description throughout here. I don't find it obtrusive, and it's varied enough to still be rich while staying brief.

The premise here is starting to feel slightly nonsensical (though it may not help that I've read a few end-of-the-world-is-coming stories like LH and Seveneves). I find myself questioning why anyone would give a notification that a bunch of simulated intelligences are going to be terminated. In what sense is that better than just terminating them, if it seems like basic psychology would suggest you're going to wind up with a lot of stress, pain, and panic. I'm wondering if this isn't the whole point of simulating said intelligences, actually—to see how they'd react in a situation like this. (Then again, I can't deny that we occasionally get a little socially weird trying to protect people and things.)

I'm curious about the jumping perspective and I'm kind of hoping we don't do it the whole time, that we cycle back around to these people. Brianna makes a good amount of sense as a perspective character. Matthew makes essentially no sense, given what little we saw of him in that first scene—he has no capacity for anything other than trying to hook the reader and seeing the Notification, neither of which he was particularly good at doing. Cesar seems fine. And we're back to Matthew! Okay, cool. (I guess this paragraph has now become defunct as a source of important criticism. Oh well.)

I like the word choices here, in general. The dean's use of "cognizant". "Irrefutable evidence of this hypothesis." Brianna's casual use of cruiser and . I'm not sure how much I like "blue nitrile surgical gloves", though. Rich's video game example, similarly, is good—but I don't know how much I buy into video games being so socially common these days that I'm going to assume Joe Police is a gamer. The metaphor feels like it'd be more natural coming from Cesar to me. There are a few other places where I feel like the word and focus choice in the narration may be slipping away from tight character perspective, too. A lot is good, but I do think you could still improve this in editing.

The end of the second Cesar section is a real punch in the gut, especially after telling us what Maria's parents believe. Thanks, C.S. Lewis.

Nitpick, but the bridge between Brianna 3 and Cesar 3 has a near-identical sentence structure on both sides, very close together.

I like Spotlight and the plan to try to communicate—and incidentally, CiG, to me this story officially becomes science fiction when the characters try to affect the premise, since the premise is I think pretty well classified as sci-fi; when the premise is just a McGuffin, this could credibly be called a drama, but when the story jumps to interacting with the premise, this becomes definitively sci-fi to me—to try to communicate, but it does overlook the worry that the simulation isn't running in real time and that it's entirely possible no one will have time to stop it from terminating. This in no way impacts the plot point, because I think it still makes sense in the context of the characters, but as an outside observer it's a thing I find myself thinking.

I definitely like the quiet ending here. I was expecting a more sudden ending, but I like this better. At the end, this is a type of story I've seen done a few times before, but that doesn't really take away from the fact that it's done well here. The choice of characters and scene selection feels pretty solid to me, now at the end. Not all of the scenes feel deeply purposeful, but there's a lot you're capturing with those choices. (ETA: looking back on it, I do feel like the scenes begin to repeat themselves a little. You're really kind of hammering the same bits on many of Brianna's scenes and the same bits on many of Cesar's scenes. I enjoy them, but I think you may have started hitting diminishing returns on some of the ideas you're putting into them. On the other hand, it's probably fair to say that I can be a decently subtle reader, and what I might consider 'hammering' when I sit down and think about a story could very well be a perfectly reasonable level of thematic repetition.) I think Matthew is definitely the weakest element of this story, since he seems to be pretty much a passenger in his own sections. At the same time, that doesn't really bother me—and maybe I'm wrong to call it out. Brianna and Cesar are both much more active; it may make sense to have a more contemplative third voice that isn't really on the hook to do anything narratively.

I think I have little doubt as to who wrote this. It's another total package story, and I don't think I can honestly deny it a well-earned top spot on my ballot. It could be more original, but it couldn't be a whole lot more well done without rebuilding the whole thing from the ground up.

HORSE: Decline to rate.
TIER: Top Contender
#13 ·
The world wakes up to find a notification in the sky that the world is a simulation, and the simulation is coming to an end in 30 (in-world) days.

This is a story focused on how people deal with the end of the world, and as such, I felt like, while it had some stuff going for it, it also felt like ground I’ve trod on before, with movies like Deep Impact and similar works presaging this.

That said, the story works well enough; we follow a few characters as their lives wend through the final days, trying to deal with the end of the world and the fact that everything isn’t “real” (or at least, isn’t real in the sense that they had previously believed). The questions of whether or not everyone else in the world is real, whether or not anyone other than the characters we focused on were real, and everything else all got wound through the story.

On the downside, though, I never really closely allied myself with any of the characters; we had so many of them, and they all had so little space to breathe, I only got some fairly basic impressions, and most of them felt fairly standard for a story like this.

So, while the shape of this was quite good, it also felt standard. Bats called it a greatest hits of Armageddon montage, and that’s really kind of true; the only really novel thing this story had was the nukes trying to get the attention of the people who made the simulation, and the story didn't really seem to do anything with it.
#14 ·
· · >>horizon
The story:

I ended up thinking of while reading this was Arthur C. Clarke's 1950s classic "The Nine Billion Names of God." This one's about three times longer than that one and does seem a lot more diffuse since it's focusing on more characters, and it also doesn't have the same impact at the end since there are absolutely no twists--the story tells us what's going to happen right at the top, and that's exactly what happens.

I also wondered about this sign in the sky. Does it appear over major cities only? Does there have to be a certain population density? And where in the sky does it appear? Does it move as the observer moves? Or is it anchored regardless of one's individual perspective?

Still, a nice, serviceable doomsday story.

#15 ·
Next up on my random review order.

This story of ordinary people coping with a world-changing disaster was great when it was called The Instruments Of Our Surrender, and it was great when it was called Babel, and it's still great now. Tier: Top Contender

*cough* But seriously, as far as I'm concerned this does pretty much everything right. The lampshading of the origin of the apocalypse is enough for context -- I feel like it's explored just about right for a story this length; hinting at a lot more depth but leaving most of the details in the background -- and this quickly and wisely turns into a story about people being people in unusual circumstances. The ending of the Cesar arc brought a legit lump to my throat. The Brianna arc is well-placed to explore and lampshade the public-order question, which is going to be a central element of any slow-motion apocalypse. Mark's arc, I think, is weakest, largely because there's very little he actually does. The glimpse into the higher-level response is nice, and the philosopher scene is strong, but right now he's sort of an exposition machine lacking much agency. Even his decision to go watch the end from a nature preserve lacks impact because I don't think we get enough context about him and his friends and his values to see why that's important, and first and foremost a story about the end of all things is going to be about what is important to people.

Regardless, on the strength of those super-strong moments and the general solid construction here, this is an easy top-of-ballot. I'm not sure why those landed for me when they didn't seem to work for others, but then, it seems like the voting has been awfully weird this round; if I'm not mistaken, based on reviews, every story that someone's named at the top of their ballot has ended up at the bottom of someone else's.

Tier: Top Contender
#16 ·
· · >>Southpaw
>>Baal Bunny
The writing in the sky is lampshaded in the story as being a mental construct in every single person's brain, with no actual physical existence (it even shows up in each person's native language), which I suspect renders most of the questions here moot. It clearly has to show up with relative positioning to work, so everyone sees it in their own "up" direction. There are some weird physics consequences unless it always shows up "directly overhead" i.e. in the direction opposite the center of the Earth -- such as, if someone in the International Space Station did a somersault at the right angle, it would glitch the display through big arcs of the sky. But "always directly overhead" works pretty flawlessly.
#17 · 2
5 – Doubt Not the Stars Are Fire

The first thing I noticed about this story is a lack of discrimination regarding worthwhile events. From the very beginning, we lead in with a character waking up and potter about for a few paragraphs before getting to what ought to be the proper beginning of the story. Later, we have a scene about a car crash … which begins with the police officer lounging against her car. Later again, when she shoots someone who's threatening her, we're given a loving description of what a “copper-jacketed round” does as it passes through the human body. Why? What is this sentence accomplishing?

Again, a lack of discrimination: Why so many characters? Especially when they spend their time doing such boring things. You could cut at least two, if you're going to keep the limited perspective. (I suspect omniscient narration would work better for this story, though.)

Nor is the prose particularly well written. Take this paragraph for example:

The people of New York City had responded to the sudden appearance of the Notification, as the media had taken to calling the message in the sky, in much the same way as people around the rest of the world – with blind, unthinking panic. Fortunately, that panic had manifested mostly as seeking out friends and loved ones, hugging them tight, and speculating wildly about what the message meant.

It takes all of the baroque, roundabout first sentence to get to the idea that people everywhere are panicking. The second sentence is slightly better, if a little mundane, but it would be communicated better by showing all this stuff actually happening. (Which is why you'd have characters in a piece like this anyway.)

The other big problem I have here is, for a story about the psychological effects of a message that simultaneously wrecks your ontology and threatens your death, the psychology displayed lacks in both breadth and depth. Governments try to find a plan. Riots happen. A random teenager gets his end away. Everyone else just sort of potters around vaguely worrying. Where are the religious converts? The street preachers? The people insisting yes, we will prepare for that holiday next week because nothing's going to happen? The calm suicides on live TV?

There are some gems scattered about here, though. The concept itself, of course. The discussions of philosophy are good – this is one case where I wish they'd gone deeper. (And, keeping an emotional note, are they the steadfast calm of the intellectually heroic even in the face of impending death … or an ineffectual coping mechanism? But the story never bothers to go there.) I liked the pathetic, last-ditch attempt of nuking the icecaps in attemot to gain relevance. And Cesar's last scene is great. I usually dislike overt displays of emotion from characters, but he's drunk, so here I can roll with it.

I just wish there'd been more stuff like that.
#18 · 1
>>horizon I'm wondering how this phenomenon would play out for those who can't read...
#19 ·
This story is doubtlessly well written, and I think the set of characters is well-chosen and well-characterized, although they never really stretch beyond the teenager, the young cop and the ecology professor that they're made out to be, which also makes them replaceable.

That is maybe one of the main criticism I have to make about this story: there's no character that actually tries to achieve something, so there's no cause to root for, no failure to fear. It's characters waiting for the apparently inevitable, which makes it less engaging than it could be. Also, some scenes felt fitting, but were rather unrelated to the apocalyptic setting: The cop getting into her first fire fight, the teenager having his first girl and beer... they'd fit into a coming of age story, or detective story, just as well.

I'd have loved for this story to have a kind of twist, something that revealed more about the origin of the message and offered some hope, or something else that changed something, but after the reveal of the message in the first scene, there's just no progression. I thought there might be something of the sort when the nuclear fireworks were brought up, but since none of the characters were involved in actually trying to solve anything, their effects weren't even brought up again, not even as the apparent failure they had been. It was just inconsequential.

The powerful prose saves a lot of this, but in the end, the actual story felt largely 'meh'.
#20 · 2
I thought this one was fantastic, although it’s probably worth mentioning that some of the stuff which worked for me was exactly the same stuff which turned some other commenters off. For example, I thought that the non-committal ending worked very well here, even though that sort of thing is usually a massive turn off for me. Like, the way I viewed this piece, the question of whether or not it was really a simulation was entirely beside the point. Heck, one of the characters even flat-out states it: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a simulation or a real meat-and-atoms physical being.” Ultimately, I think that you chose the right ending, since a definitive answer would’ve undermined the philosophical undercurrents running throughout your story (Are we real or not? Does it matter?).

As for the general feeling that this was simply an ‘apocalypse’s greatest hits’ montage… I can certainly understand that point of view, but again, it didn’t detract from the story for me. Execution is every bit as important as originality, and I thought that this was executed brilliantly. The characters felt vivid and alive; the writing was evocative; the pacing was good. I’m placing this one high on my slate.