“Never do that,” the mother scolded her child. “Don’t ever, ever do that again!”
She held the young boy by one arm and pointed a gloved finger in his face. He had struggled but now he had given up. Maybe not learned his lesson, but given up resisting his mother’s admonishing grip.
Self-conscious about onlookers, the mother cast a grimly defensive glare around her, and drew her child on. Nobody was judging her, of course. The boy had to learn, and the cubes were tantalizing enough to adults.
The pair was gone, and pedestrians gave a wide berth to the black-and-red scorch mark on the pavement, where the boy had touched the cube and only barely been pulled back from it before it could take him. The debris from where the thing had twisted, melted, and burst after being let go still squirmed and festered, and could be death to any flesh that touched it before it settled down. Unrecognizable from the inviting shape of swirling pink-and-green light it had been before the boy had touched it. Everyone who saw it only gave it a darkly knowing glance before looking and turning away. Maybe spared a moment to wonder whether it had gotten anyone before shrieking and decomposing.
A few minutes later, a cleanup crew arrived. The cubes could not be touched in any way, but once they were fully discharged they were only inanimate molecules, albeit plenty toxic. Four workers in hazmat suits disembarked from an unmarked but well-known van, armed with vacuums, scrub brushes, and an array of chemical cleaners.
When the sticky, pocked sludge had been chemically neutralized and broken up with solvents, Gordon, the scrubber, scoured the pavement thoroughly, up and down, until the heavy-duty scanner no longer registered the alien substance’s presence. The team carefully collected the contaminated cleaning water, thoroughly dried the area, and loaded back up in the van.
There were no windows in the back, but Gordon knew the scene outside. People in the streets and in their windows taking note of the cleanup van and stopping for a moment to think with distress on what it meant. After all, there were no markings to distinguish the vans that only cleaned up the mess and the ones that took away the bodies. There were people who always wept, and people who turned to someone else to give a smug smile, laugh that another fool had been got.
Also out there were other cubes on the sidewalk and on lawns and in plazas, sometimes in the middle of the street, in peaceful pastel colors. Some that had allowed themselves to be cordoned off and others that prevented even that much interference. Another would descend soon to take the ruined one’s place. And nothing would be learned from the alien contaminants brought back in the cleaning crew’s tanks.
The cleaners changed out of their hazmat suits and showered back at the office. After so many years, the populace was wary and wizened enough that, even in a big city like this one, every van did not need to be dispatched all day long to clean up splatter after splatter, like in the early years. Gordon, who had been doing this for a long time now, quite welcomed the breaks between trips out to a cube site.
A message flashed on Gordon’s watch, calling him in to his supervisor’s office. Back in his coveralls and hair still wet, he obliged. Mr. Gabrel, supervising coordinator of cleanup and disposal, nodded for him to sit and asked an assistant for his afternoon coffee.
“Your team is slowing down,” Mr. Gabrel got to the point. “I know it isn’t like it was before, Gordon, but you can’t be taking ten minutes to reach a site.”
Gordon spread his hands apologetically.
“Is the one we just cleaned up back yet?” he asked. There was no point denying his reticence, and that of most of his colleagues.
“It is. Another cube fell right after you left. You know, when I was stationed in Central Asia, we didn’t have the resources for more than a couple vans. New cubes dropped while old ones were still boiling on the sidewalk. It’s noxious. We can’t allow it.”
Mr. Gabrel rested his hand on his smooth glass desk. It hurt Gordon’s eyes to look at it. The brace at his elbow, made of strange, pulsing alien technology, chittered as it ate the advancing corruption.
“Do you know how many cubes there are?” Gabrel asked.
“Two billion, nine hundred seventy-one million, two hundred fifteen-thousand, seventy-three. That number doesn’t go up or down. There are always that many.”
“One always drops after one gets triggered.”
“That anything I do gets undone a few minutes later?”
Gabrel made and released a fist with the hand that had touched a cube many years ago. It was beautiful. Incomprehensibly beautiful. Even in the corner of his diverted eyes, it inspired a swell of joyous tears that wanted to well in Gordon’s eyes, evoked memories of the smells of places he and his sisters had played as small children. All with a sickly intensity that felt like heartburn.
“No, you aren’t making anything,” Gabrel said. “You don’t come away at the end of the day with a product. And you aren’t making progress towards anything. Maybe this isn’t a fit for you, but I can’t just dismiss you, because people don’t want this job. But it’s important. You’re staving something off.”
“I know. Not everyone can have one of those,” Gordon nodded at the strange biotech mouth that halted the cube’s conquest of his supervisor’s body.
“No, it’s not that. They dropped the cubes seven years ago, and you’ve been married, what, six?”
Gordon was quiet.
“How many of them stayed behind?”
Gordon was quiet.
“About six million. And a lot of them had something to do with the cubes, whether they wanted to or not. You get what I’m saying?”
Gordon’s eyes drifted to that hand. That indescribably perfect hand. Left unchecked, it would become so beautiful, so perfect, that the language of the universe couldn’t describe it any better than his, and it would vanish.
“I love my wife,” he said.
“But most people see only that she’s one of them. One of the ones who dropped these cube things on us. In this department, we keep those under control. Do you feel like your wife is safe?”
“She’s safe because we keep the cubes under control. If there’s another epidemic, if people forget to leave them be, and start – “ arm “ – this again, then she’s not safe. There will be people at your door wanting to take the alien in, I can tell you that right now.”
Gordon took in a long breath.
“I know,” he said.
Gabrel nodded and gestured that he could leave.
“Can you communicate that, however you’re comfortable, to your teammates?” he asked.
“And. One more thing.” Mr. Gabrel rubbed his affected arm with the other hand, hesitated. “What does she say? About them.”
Gordon thought for a long time, about whether it would be appropriate to answer.
“She says they were supposed to be a gift,” he said finally. “but they didn’t react to our bodies like her people thought they would. But, they were supposed to be a gift.”
Gabrel gave that some thought, didn’t like it, and dismissed him.