“We’re very proud of this year’s unique trophy design,” Parker Evans said, lifting the shimmering globe high above the podium like he was Rafiki in The Lion King. The liquid inside the globe churned and swirled in a kaleidoscope of metallic colors. The gleaming silver plaque on the base read, “SEPISWA Sci-fi Writer of the Year.”
Parker put the trophy down on the podium and gestured toward a man with a handlebar mustache who sat at one of the round tables in front of the stage. “It was designed by last year’s ‘Sci-fi Writer of the Year,’ Pierre LaRoche. Stand up, Pierre!”
The mustachioed man stood and bowed to scattered applause.
“Pierre LaRoche my ass,” Toby Goodman muttered as he eyed Pierre from his seat at the next table. “More like Pete Liebowitz. He’s French like I’m Chinese.”
“You wish were Chinese,” Caroline Chen muttered back with a smirk.
“The special chemicals Pierre used are designed to keep moving around inside the globe indefinitely,” came Parker’s voice from the stage.
“Special chemicals,” Mike Muniz snorted, nudging Toby with his elbow. “More like water and canola oil. I made something like that for my third grade science fair.”
“That is, unless they reach a temperature of over 90 degrees Fahrenheit,” Parker continued. “Then the chemicals become volatile. So for all our winners, make sure you keep your trophies cool!” He attempted a laugh unconvincingly. “And now, everyone, please enjoy your meals as we announce this year’s winners.”
Orchestral music swelled over the large speakers at the base of the stage, drowning out the meager applause in the vast banquet hall.
“How am I supposed to enjoy this?” Caroline said, frowning at her plate. “The steak is like rubber.”
“Try the chicken,” said Toby, raising his voice over the loud music. “It’s like cardboard.”
“At least you guys got a meal,” said Maya Harris. “The only vegan thing they have on the menu is a side salad, and it’s just iceberg lettuce that’s past its use-by date.” She poked the wilted greens on her plate with a fork and gasped. “Oh my God! Is that egg?!” She made a retching sound and pushed her plate away. “Every year I ask them to add some vegan options. They never listen!”
“Here,” Toby said, thrusting his plate at Maya with a grin. “Have some chicken.”
Maya covered her mouth with her hand and waved the plate away. “Stop it, Goodman!” she cried, her voice muffled by her hand. “That’s not funny!”
“Seriously, Goodman,” Caroline agreed. “It wasn’t funny the first time you did it six years ago, and it’s still not funny now.”
Toby shrugged and dropped his plate. “You women are so sensitive. That’s why you can’t write good sci-fi.”
Caroline let out a gruff “Ha!” and flipped her shiny black hair. “At least I don’t shrivel up like a little daisy if I see a single curse word printed on a page.”
“Curses have no place in literature,” said Mike.
“Why?” said Caroline. “They’re all over movies, TV shows, and music. Why should books be any different? Why is literature held to some pretentious, elitist standard?”
Maya rubbed her temples. “Do we have to have this argument every year?”
“Just as long as low class writers like Chen are allowed to be in seppyswah,” said Mike.
Toby groaned. “Don’t call it that. I hate it when people call it that. It’s the Southeastern Pennsylvania Independent Sci-fi Writers Association. Not seppyswah.”
“It’s an acronym,” said Caroline. “Get over it.”
“It’s an initialism,” said Toby. “Get it right.”
“Fuck you,” said Caroline, flipping Toby the bird.
“There you go cursing again,” said Mike. “Do you have to curse all the time?”
“Yes I fucking do,” said Caroline, “especially when it’s so fucking hot in here.” She shrugged off her argyle sweater and hung it on the back of her plastic chair.
“It is getting a little warm, isn’t it?” Maya gathered her afro into a neat, round puff and secured it with a hemp scrunchy.
“So sensitive,” Toby mumbled under his breath.
Caroline scowled at him.
“Maybe something’s wrong with the air conditioning,” said Mike, loosening his tie.
Maya sat straight up in her seat. “Oh God,” she said, her eyes growing as wide as her salad plate. “We’re at a convention in Philadelphia and the air conditioning’s malfunctioning!”
“So?” said Mike.
“So?!” Maya repeated. “That’s how Legionnaires’ disease started, Muniz!”
“We’re not gonna get Legionnaires’ disease, Harris,” said Toby. “Jesus Christ.”
“Oh, so cursing is off limits, but sacrilege is totally fine,” Caroline said, folding her arms over her chest.
“Shut up, Chen,” said Toby. “I’m sure it’s a simple matter of adjusting the thermostat. I’ll just have a look around and see if I can find it.”
“Oh, no you don’t, Goodman,” said Mike, putting a hand on Toby’s shoulder. “You start messing around with the thermostat and the next thing we know it’s set to Celsius.”
“God forbid we all join the rest of the civilized world and use the metric system,” Toby scoffed.
“Fuck the metric system,” said Caroline. “This is America. God damn, it really is hot in here.” She picked up her glass of ice water and rubbed it on her forehead. Clear droplets slid down her face, forming goosebumps on her beige skin.
“Fuck me, it is hot,” said Mike, unbuttoning his shirtsleeves and rolling them up.
“Ha!” said Caroline. “I’m not the only one who curses.”
“That does it,” said Toby, slamming his fist on the crêpe paper table cloth. “I’m gonna do something about this.”
“No!” Mike, Maya, and Caroline shouted in unison.
“Leave it alone,” said Caroline. “Let’s just get our awards and get the hell outta here.”
“Like you’re getting an award,” said Toby.
“Why wouldn’t I get an award?” Caroline demanded.
“Because you write violent trash,” said Mike.
Caroline huffed. “According to the rest of the literary world, we all write trash! Don’t shit on my trash just because it’s more violent than your trash!”
“Please, Chen,” said Toby. “Your books are just nonstop violence with a little dialog thrown in. The story is an afterthought.”
“How dare you!” said Caroline. “I’ll have you know I spend months working on my stories! The violence is an afterthought!”
“Then why add it at all?” asked Mike.
“And why does it have to be so graphic?” Maya added with a shudder.
“Because that’s how it happened,” said Caroline.
“Yeah, in your sick, twisted mind,” said Toby.
Caroline glanced around at the other three people at the table through narrowed eyes. “Yeah, well, you’ll all be shitting yourselves when I when I win ‘Sci-fi Writer of the Year.’”
“Don’t make me laugh, Chen,” said Toby.
“Laugh it up, Goodman,” said Caroline, “because I’m taking home one of those tacky ass trophies.”
“Forget it,” said Mike. “I’m winning ‘Sci-fi Writer of the Year.’”
Caroline laughed shrilly. “You? With your bullshit space stories?”
“What’s wrong with space stories?” Mike said, furrowing his brow.
“Face it, Muniz,” said Maya, waving a hand in the air dismissively, “space is played out.”
“Played out?” Mike echoed incredulously.
“So played out,” said Toby.
“It is not!” Mike pouted as he wiped away a stray bead of sweat that dripped from his curly chestnut locks.
“Star Trek,” Caroline supplied.
“Stargate,” Toby added.
“Battlestar Galactica,” Maya chimed in.
“Babylon 5,” said Toby.
“Lost in Space,” said Caroline.
“Firefly,” said Maya.
“OK, OK, I get it,” Mike said with a sigh. “But it’s not played out. It’s timeless.”
“You mean stale,” said Toby.
Mike shot Toby a sidelong glance. “Oh like your time travel shit is so fresh and original.”
“Hey!” said Toby. “How many primetime TV shows have been made about time travel in the last 50 years? Hm?”
“Quantum Leap,” Caroline supplied.
“Outlander,” Maya chimed in.
“Doctor Who,” Mike added.
“Voyagers,” said Caroline.
“Oh shut up!” Toby hissed, his pale face flushing a deep red that almost matched his hair.
Mike squinted at Caroline. “What the fuck is Voyagers?”
“Can you please stop cursing?!” Maya snapped. “God, it’s so hot in here!” She picked up her glass of water and quickly gulped it down.
“Hey, Gunga Din, slow down,” Caroline said with a chuckle.
Mike shook his head. “What the fuck is a Gunga Din?”
Maya made a grumbling sound as she refilled her glass from the pitcher in the middle of the table.
Toby took off his glasses and wiped his face with his napkin. “You’re not kidding, Harris. What is going on with the air conditioning?” He put his glasses back on and looked around the banquet hall. “Um...” he trailed off, blinking his beady blue eyes rapidly. “Guys? What’s going on?”
Maya paused her water guzzling. “What do you mean?”
“Look around,” Toby said, making a sweeping gesture. “We’re the only ones here.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” said Caroline.
“Look!” said Toby.
The others looked up from their untouched meals and sweating water glasses and glanced around. Toby was right. The dozen or so other tables and chairs around them sat empty. Parker Evans no longer stood at the podium, and music no longer blared from the speakers.
“What the fuck?” Maya whispered.
The other three briefly flashed Maya shocked expressions before turning back to the empty room.
“What happened?” asked Mike. “Where did they all go?”
Toby stepped over to the next table. “Look at this, guys,” he said, waving the others over. “What’s this stuff?”
“What stuff?” The slapping of Maya’s Birkenstocks echoed around the empty room as she clomped to where Toby stood hunched over a chair. She stared at the chair and gasped. “Oh my God! What’s that?”
Caroline joined Toby and Maya at the next table. “Ew,” she said with a grimace. “What is that shit?”
Mike sighed and trudged over to the rest of the group with his hands in his pockets. He looked down at the chair and frowned. “It’s some kind of...goo.”
“It looks like tar,” said Caroline, reaching a finger toward the black, viscous substance on the chair.
“Don’t touch it!” Maya cried, grabbing Caroline’s arm. “You don’t know what it is or where it came from!”
“It’s just some slimy shit,” said Caroline, trying to shake off Maya’s arm.
“It could be poison!” said Maya. “Or psychedelic drugs planted by the government as some sort of experiment!”
“You think everything’s a government experiment,” said Mike.
“Well, what do you think it is, Spaceman?” Maya asked.
“I think it’s obvious,” said Mike. “It’s a substance unlike anything we’ve ever seen...on earth.”
The other three groaned.
“Not aliens again,” said Caroline. “Can’t you think about anything else?”
“What else could it be?” Mike said with a shrug.
“Look around,” said Caroline. “It’s on all the chairs, the tables, even the floor.” She pointed at the linoleum floor, where a puddle of the black substance bubbled.
Maya winced and stepped back.
“So?” said Mike.
“It’s what’s left of the other people,” said Caroline. “They spontaneously combusted. These are their remains.”
“Oh, that is so sick!” said Maya, clutching her stomach.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Toby. “There’s no such thing as spontaneous combustion.”
“Yuh-huh!” said Caroline. “It’s been documented!”
“So have alien abductions, but that doesn’t make them true,” said Toby.
“Wait a minute,” Mike interjected. “There have been hundreds of alien abductions throughout the world, and that’s a well-documented fact.”
“You keep using the word ‘documented’ like it means ‘true,’” said Toby.
“So what’s your theory, Mr. Wizard?” Caroline asked.
“I think it’s perfectly clear,” said Toby, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “It’s temporal residue.”
“Temporal what?” said Mike.
“Residue,” said Toby. “It’s the material left behind when people travel through time.”
The other three groaned.
“You think everyone else in the room traveled through time but we didn’t?” Maya asked, struggling to suppress a smile. “That’s so stupid, Goodman.”
“Why is it stupid?” said Toby. “We’re here, and everyone else disappeared.”
“Maybe we’re the ones who time traveled,” said Mike, stroking his chin, “and everyone else is still in the present.”
“Like in The Langoliers?” said Caroline.
“But you guys told me it wasn’t Legionnaires’,” said Maya.
“Not Legionnaires. Langoliers,” said Toby. “It’s a Stephen King book.”
Maya shook her head. “Chen, why must you turn everything into a horror story?”
“Why must you turn everything into a government conspiracy?” Caroline shot back.
“It’s way more likely than time travel,” said Maya, putting her hands on her hips. “Maybe the government is experimenting with a new biological weapon, and the four of us are immune to it for some reason.”
They all looked around at each other curiously.
“But what could the four of us all have in common?” Mike asked. “Besides being sci-fi writers?”
“Good question,” said Caroline. “We’re different races, ages, genders...”
“Maybe it’s not us but where we were sitting,” Toby said, excitedly trotting back to their table. “There’s an air conditioning vent directly over our table.” He pointed up at the ceiling and grinned.
“But the air conditioning’s not working,” said Maya.
“It’s not working over our table,” said Caroline. “Maybe it’s working everywhere else, and whatever’s coming out of it is what made everyone disappear.”
“Oh my God!” Maya breathed, her brown skin turning pale. “Langoliers—I mean Legionnaires’!”
“It’s not funny, Chen!” Maya protested.
“It’s not Legionnaires’, Harris,” said Toby. “Besides, the air conditioning’s not working anywhere. Otherwise it wouldn’t be so hot in here.”
“Why don’t we split up and check out all the air vents to see if any of them are working?” Caroline suggested.
“No way!” said Maya. “Then we’ll get disappeared like everyone else!”
“Don’t be a baby,” said Toby, rolling his eyes. He pushed his glasses up again and marched across the room.
“Goodman, don’t!” shouted Mike.
Toby pulled out one of the few chairs that wasn’t covered in the black goo and stood on it. He reached a hand up toward the ceiling and shook his head. “Nothing,” he said.
Caroline walked over to another table and reached up her arms. “Nothing here either. There goes that theory.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Mike. “Call the police?”
“Nuh-uh.” Maya picked up her canvas tote bag and shawl. “If you’re calling the police, I’m getting outta here.”
“No one’s calling the police,” said Toby.
“Yeah,” said Caroline. “The pigs wouldn’t know what to do with this shit.”
“Then what?” said Mike.
The four of them stood in silence for a moment, looking around at the black slime-covered room.
“We have to test the goo,” said Toby.
“Test it how?” asked Maya.
“I’ll collect a sample, take it home, and look at it under my microscope,” Toby said, picking up an empty glass.
“And then what, genius?” said Caroline. “You won’t even know what you’re looking at.”
“I will so,” said Toby. “I’m a scientist.”
“You’re an eighth grade science teacher,” said Mike.
“I studied science,” Toby said through gritted teeth. He knelt down by a puddle of goo on the floor and scooped some into the glass with a spoon. It bubbled and gurgled as it slid down the side of the glass.
“Gross,” said Maya. “You’re not really taking that to your apartment, are you?”
“Sure,” said Toby with a shrug. “Why not?”
“Because it could give you Langoliers,” said Mike, snorting with laughter.
Maya glared at Mike. “Because it could do to you whatever it did to all the other people here.”
“It hasn’t done it yet,” said Toby. “Maybe you were right. Maybe there’s something about the four of us that makes us immune to whatever it is.”
“Maybe we have alien DNA,” said Mike.
“Don’t be stupid,” said Maya. “It’s some kind of secret genetic code. Probably put there by the government.”
“Whatever," Caroline said with a sigh. I’m tired of looking at this shit. Let’s get outta here.”
“Good idea,” said Mike, collecting his blazer.
“Wait,” said Maya, her wide eyes growing even wider. “What if whatever happened here didn’t just happen here?”
“What are you babbling about now?” Toby asked, covering his glass of goo with a napkin.
“What if it happened to the whole world?” said Maya. “And we’re the only people left alive!”
“That’s a disturbing thought,” said Mike.
“Well, kids,” said Caroline, clapping her hands, “there’s only one way to find out.” She picked up her sweater and headed for the double-doors at the back of the hall.
Toby followed, gingerly carrying his bubbling glass, and Mike and Maya shuffled behind him.
They opened the double doors to find a man in a blue denim coverall pushing a mop across the floor of the deserted lobby. He looked up at them quizzically through bloodshot eyes. “What are you all still doing here?” the man asked in a raspy voice. “I thought everyone left.”
Toby, Mike, Maya, and Caroline exchanged puzzled glances.
“Everyone left?” said Mike.
“Yeah,” said the man, “when them trophy things exploded all over the place. Made a real mess.” He gestured at the wet floor.
Toby’s face flushed a darker shade of red. “The trophies exploded?”
“Yeah,” the man said again. “That guy Parker whatshisface? He said it was ‘cause ah the heat on account ah the air conditioner crapped out.”
Caroline smacked her head with her palm. “Holy shit, you guys,” she said. “The heat. The fucking heat.”
Maya raised her eyebrows. “Parker said the chemicals become volatile in temperatures over 90 degrees. He said to keep the trophies cool.”
“The air conditioner stopped working,” said Mike, “and the temperature must’ve gone up to over 90 degrees.”
“The trophies exploded,” said Toby, “and everyone left.”
“That’s right,” said the man with the mop. “Everyone came runnin' out with that stuff all over 'em." He blinked at the four people in front of him. "How come yous are all clean?”
The four of them looked at each other in silence.
“We didn’t get trophies,” Mike said eventually.
Toby laughed softly and shook his head. “That’s it,” he said, his laugh growing louder. “That’s the one thing the four of us have in common: none of us won any awards.”
Caroline sputtered with laughter. “We’re all losers!”
Mike and Maya joined in the laughter, and soon the four of them were laughing so hard that tears mixed with the sweat on their faces. The janitor shrugged and returned to his mopping.
“I guess being a loser isn’t so bad,” said Mike. “It saved us from getting covered in nasty black goo.”
“Damn right,” said Caroline. “This time, the losers won.”