“Watching the World Go By” by Ali Hoff

By Joel Tagert
Art by Ali Hoff
Published Issue 083, November 2020

“What has been will be again,” intoned Preserver Lyons, “what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Forever and ever, amen.” He raised a hand to the great crowd of faithful in the square below, but even as he did an immensely bright light flared in the dawn sky, like a second sun, and his hand involuntarily twitched to shade his eyes. The light arced across the firmament toward the mountains in the west, falling toward the horizon, sharp black shadows of the city’s buildings turning in its wake.

A stunned silence followed, then a growing roar, a wave crashing against the immutable base of the temple of the Omniscient. One word was shouted over and over below, and whispered between the cowering lectors behind him on the balcony: flux, flux, flux! Lyons tried to shake off the terror that gripped him. He was the high priest of a civilization that had endured for countless aeons. Imagine the chaos if that word should spread!

With sudden decision he stepped forward and again raised his hand. The crowd slowly quieted. “The Omniscient knows all and sees all,” he declaimed, amplified voice booming across the square. “But It does not reveal all to its followers. Don’t be afraid. The comet we witnessed was absent from the Almanac not because of any lapse, but because the Omniscient required your surprise. It is all one with the divine plan. May Stasis endure.”

May Stasis endure, those watching murmured reflexively, even as Lyons turned toward the lectors. “Is it true?” asked Hami, her bare head studded with implants. “Did the Omniscient communicate with you?”

“I said it, didn’t I?” He hurried past her into the temple. 

“Then why not with us? It’s nowhere in the Almanac. This will require enormous adjustments. If people change –”

“If people change, then we will make adjustments according to the Omniscient’s directives, as we have done for nigh on three million years. And since those adjustments are obviously pressing, I suggest you get to it. I need to commune.”

He could see the dissatisfaction in her eyes, but they had been bred to obey. He gave rapid instructions to the other lectors, dismissing them when he reached the gilded doors of the inner sanctum. He reached to press his hand against the identifier, realized he was shaking, and took a moment to compose himself. There is nothing new under the sun.

Inside he felt calmer, the shining complexities of the Omniscient surrounding him, Its machinery infinitely subtle, gleaming instruments of silver and crystal woven throughout the circular room, like the nest of a beneficent jeweled spider. He knelt before the huge golden globe at the room’s center and spoke. “Holy Omniscient, I have a question.”

“Speak.” The voice of the Omniscient was soft and even.

“Minutes ago we saw something very bright pass overhead. It was not in the Almanac. What was it?”

“It is an interstellar vessel.”

Lyons’ mouth fell open. It was seconds before he could speak. “From where?”

“It is of unknown origin.”

“Who sent it?”


“But … humanity is extinct. We are the last.” This was not a question, and so elicited no response. “Why wasn’t it detected earlier? Why wasn’t it intercepted by our planetary defenses?”


“Where is it now?” he squeaked, really panicked. A holographic map of the planet appeared, rotating to show a location some few hundred miles distant. “What should we do?”

“I have sent disposal units to the landing site. This vessel’s entry into Stasis territory contravenes the Abrexa Treaty and presents a significant source of phenomenal flux. It will be destroyed and Stasis restored. Do not be concerned.”

Lyons was overcome. He wept.

Some minutes later, he had left the sanctum and was eagerly giving instruction to the lectors when a powerful series of explosions, far distant, trembled through the massive edifice of the temple. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “The Omniscient said It would dispose of the problem. Now it has. Hami, how are we doing?”

“Flux is at sixty percent throughout the city, Your Holiness, and seems to be spreading.” 

Despite the Omniscient’s assurances, Lyons’ heart leapt. Sixty percent! Certainly his own behavior had veered wildly from the forecast. But this wasn’t the first time they’d experienced a little flux storm; he could remember the sudden earthquake twenty-five years past, when flux had peaked at ninety percent in the city for a distressing day until the Omniscient provided a new forecast. Events would return to predictability, to glorious stability. Soon they would each look again at their Almanacs and know where they would be each hour of the day, each year of their lives. The Omniscient would recalibrate. 

“Let’s consider our address this evening,” he dictated. “We can clarify that everything is under control and ask citizens to return to their scheduled activities. This is no great disaster, merely a momentary aberration. It’s like a sudden tornado out in the country. It’s unwelcome, certainly, but it poses no lasting threat. In a little while we’ll be telling stories about it.”

Another explosion rocked the building, tiny puffs of dust drifting down from the arched ceiling beams above them in his offices. Was that closer? “Calm, calm,” he said. “Give It time to do Its work.”

“Your Holiness, that was just outside the city,” Hami said. “A craft is approaching.”

“No!” He gaped at her, then rushed toward the balcony where he had stood earlier. A whole series of concussions left him grasping for the doorframe, smoke and screams rising in the air. He saw the red beam of a laser firing again and again through the smoke, a fiery line drawn across the retinas. “What’s happening?”

“Ground-based defenses are under attack. There are fires in sectors three, four and nine. Flux at – at ninety-nine percent.” 

Chaos! Despite millennia of AI-controlled peace, always the whispered myth had persisted: Nothing lasts forever. Fear the flux! 

“There are shelters in the basement,” he gasped. “The elevators –”

Smoke swirled as an enormous mechanical hum invaded their ears. He clapped his hands over his ears and squinted against the dust.

Like a great black hornet half as large as the temple, a ship emerged from the roil, engines making that skull-deep vibration. It turned on its segmented belly with eerie precision, until its mirrored ebony nose stopped just inches from the balcony’s railing and hung there, perfectly poised. 

As the clergy quailed and hid, its face spiralled open. Two figures stepped effortlessly out over the rail.

Lyons had half-hoped they were true aliens; that, at least, would have been something truly unpredictable. But though they were tall and encased in emerald battle-armor, they were obviously human in form, and their faceplates retracted to show a man and woman, both young-looking, if hairless. They surveyed him up and down, along with the temple behind him. “Incredible,” the man said. “A million years, and it appears unchanged from our records. Hardly seems possible.”

“Are you the Preserver Supreme?” asked the woman. “Our records indicate you are wearing the appropriate costume for it.”

Trembling, Lyons stepped forward. “I am. And I must ask that you leave. You are disturbing our peace, and abrogating the ancient treaty. Please take your ship and depart.”

The man laughed. “Yeah, we already got that message from all the missiles your AI sent at us. If you all had any kind of communications equipment –”

“Well, but they obviously don’t,” his partner replied, then turned again to Lyons. “We’re sorry to disturb you, though a lot of people have argued that we should have anyway, that your AI is essentially keeping you prisoner. But you need to know that your planet is in imminent danger. A nearby star is likely to go nova in the next few centuries, due to some experiments the Adeph Faction was running. You need to evacuate.” 

Lyons’ lips moved soundlessly. Finally he said in a loud, wavering voice, “Everyone return to your daily activities. Look to your Almanac! Hami, what is on my schedule?”

His assistant stared at him, baffled. “Your Holiness?”

“What is on the schedule?”

“You are… you should be reviewing accounts.”

“Good, good! Accounts it is. Back to the office. Each of you, go back to what you were doing! Now is the time for faith! The Omniscient has a plan for all, if we just follow it.”

“Are you not hearing me?” asked the armored woman again. “Your planet will be destroyed! Your Stasis is ending whether you like it or not.”

The old priest turned on her. “You have no power here! None! No authority! It’s you who will be destroyed, like all the rest of humanity! Go back to where you came from, go back to entropy! Stasis is –”

From behind him came a flutter of robes. He stumbled and flailed at the figure shoving him, but he was old and weak. With a last desperate shove from his attacker, he tumbled over the rail, spinning as he fell through the air. 

Her erstwhile superior thus disposed of, Hami turned to the armored interlopers, breathing hard, face flushed. “Tell us.”

Joel Tagert is a fiction writer, artist and longtime Zen practitioner living in Denver, Colorado. He is also currently the office manager for the Zen Center of Denver and the editorial proofreader for Westword. His debut novel, INFERENCE, was released July 2017.

Ali Hoff is UK-based freelance concept artist and 3D Modeller.