A Keeper of Worlds
They wouldn’t stop fighting.
It wasn’t hard to figure out why. The previous keeper of World 14 had experimented with wars. He might have thought it would make the inhabitants smarter, tougher, stronger. A simplistic interpretation of survival of the fittest. Or he might have gotten off on it. When you had ultimate power over life and death, it was easy to be corrupted by it.
There were times when Red wanted to push a button and flip a switch and wipe away the tiny beings in World 14. Maybe it would be better to start fresh. They might simply be too damaged for anything other than a reset. Or possibly he could have the world declared invalid.
That was the term used on the form. All he had to do was check a box on some paperwork, drop that form in a box. The old world would be cleared away and replaced with a fresh one with a clean slate.
He watched the wars unfolding across the landscape and wished he could open the glass case, reach in, and scoop them up, one by one, and tell them to knock it off. But opening the cases was against the rules.
Red had a whole floor of worlds to attend to, and he’d done a decent job with most of them. Some were doing better than others, but overall, prosperity was up and peace was the norm. But World 14 remained a place of constant, unending death and destruction.
The elevator dinged, announcing the arrival of his supervisor. He still didn’t know her name. He’d never asked. She’d never offered. She nodded to him and inspected the progress of his worlds. She offered no comment as she took notes.
She paused at World 14.
“I haven’t been able to fix it,” he said.
“Does it need fixing?” she asked.
“You want them to kill each other?”
“It’s not a question of what we want.” She always used that word. We. She never said who that was.
He didn’t always understand his job. He kept the worlds on the third floor, but there were no parameters given. He got a paycheck regardless of how many hours he spent here, how prosperous or decaying his worlds were.
“What am I supposed to do?” he asked.
“Whatever you think you should do,” she replied. She left.
He took his lunch break early (though he had no assigned time other than his own habit) and went to the burger place across the street. It was the only convenient place in the neighborhood, so he ate there often, as did the other keepers.
Fiona was there. She kept the fifth floor. He had a little thing for her, though she was twenty years older than him and married. But she was cool, smart, and pretty. He hadn’t thought so at first because she was a little plump and had a big nose. But that was all bullshit, just images forced onto him by endless images and ideals meant to make him dislike himself so that he’d buy stuff.
Since becoming a keeper, he’d noticed that kind of thing more and more often.
He ordered, and she waved him over. “Hiya, Red. How’s it going?”
“14 still giving you trouble?”
He nodded. She was a good listener, and she remembered. One of the things he liked about her.
“I wouldn’t worry about it too much,” she said. “You’ll drive yourself crazy.”
“I should be able to fix it,” he said.
“Some things you can’t fix.”
She offered him some French fries while he waited for his food. “Sucks to be so omnipotent and powerless at the same time. Just remember. It’s not your job to save the world.”
“Have you ever invalidated?” he asked.
She frowned. “Once.”
“Do you regret it?”
She looked away. “Every goddamn day. I still think if I’d tried a little harder . . . .” She turned to him and forced a smile. “Never mind. We all have to invalidate one day. Some worlds are just too broken. But you need to take care of yourself. You’re not doing anyone any favors by exhausting yourself. Get some rest. Go out. Have some fun.”
His social life had taken a hit. The job gave him more freedom than ever, and yet he kept coming back here. He even slept in his office two or three times a week on an uncomfortable couch. Just in case he needed to be there.
All he did was keep things from getting worse. Without his constant intervention, World 14 would’ve been a wasteland by now, and he wondered why he bothered? If they were determined to destroy themselves, wasn’t it their choice?
Red and Fiona finished their lunch without talking any more about work and returned to the building.
“You’re right,” he said as he stepped off at the third floor. “I think I’ll call it an early day. Just going to give a quick final check on my worlds first.”
She smiled. She had no problem calling him on his bullshit. It was one of the things he liked about her. But she also let him believe his bullshit when he needed to. It was one of the other things he liked about her.
“Sure, Red.” She smiled. “Just one quick look.”
The doors closed, and Red went back to work.