A short man with an imperfect moustache pushed a broom across a concrete floor for what seemed like the millionth time. He could have believed he had been pushing the broom since the beginning of time and would still be pushing when it was all over, but he never complained, nor would he dream of complaining, nor would he even dream. Above him was a black ceiling that looked more vacant and empty than black except for occasional flashes that lit up only themselves before fading just as quickly, gone before they really had a chance to be there. Some lights had been burning since before the man had ever arrived with the broom, and some would burn long beyond him. Some hadn’t been there yesterday, and some would not be there tomorrow.
On the floor to his right, left, in front, and behind were squares. Each side of each square was about as long as eight of the man’s steps, which he knew for sure as he had walked past them endlessly, every day as far back as he could remember. The squares were surrounded by a wall about knee high. Cemented into each wall around each square was a wrought-iron railing about waist-high above the wall. Each railing had a clipboard on it that held seven laminated papers.
The man with the broom swept the floor outside the squares and had never reached inside the railings, but he would often walk close enough to feel that the air was much colder on the other side. There was no floor inside each square, just emptiness similar to the blackness above. The squares were in grid form, lined up in all directions as far as he could see or had ever walked. It was like standing on a waffle with endless depressions in the waffle in all directions. The squares were more like cubes, but the Boss liked to call them squares. “It makes them feel local,” he often said to the man with the broom.
In each square there were various objects randomly scattered left, right, high, and low. They were mostly spherical objects, some clustered, some isolated and alone. Some were brilliant balls of yellow, orange, or white, and some as dark as coal. Some were different shades of red and brown. Some slowly turned, traveled, or both, and some just stayed in one area of the “square” as others sped by. Some moved so imperceptibly that the man with the broom couldn’t notice a difference unless he passed by again a very long time after. Objects would occasionally reach the edge of their square and drop to the floor where the man with the broom worked that ran grid-like between the countless squares, and then the man swept them away.
“Careful with the broom, Eddie,” said the Boss.
“Did you sweep Gamma recently?”
“We have a T-5 there, and it’ll be a T-6 soon. I thought maybe you had swept a little too hard.”
The Boss held a clipboard that said “Duro 1638” at the top of all seven pages. Some pages had line graphs and pie charts that updated themselves when necessary. On the front page was a box that had “T-4” in it when the Boss had picked it from its hook but a “T-5” when he put it back.
“This one’s almost finished too,” he grumbled through a tight jaw. He exhaled and huffed. “I’m running out of ideas, Eddie.”
The man pushed the broom a little more softly and bit his tongue as the Boss’s words echoed throughout the place for the zillionth time. Each time a square went T-6, the man had to wheel out the vacuum. Each time, the man would look at the debris as he cleaned out the square and think, Too many fingerprints. He waited, always waited for the Boss to ask him what he thought. He didn’t dare offer help unless asked.
“Softly, Eddie,” said the Boss just before he was gone.
The man didn’t think it was possible to sweep any more softly, but he tried as he thought about the one day he had swept too hard.
He had been pushing his broom past a square, Aarank 714, and two very bright spheres were moving towards each other. As they grew closer, their relative speed accelerated and their light was nearly blinding and certainly beautiful. He knew he wasn’t supposed to stop in one area, but he couldn’t look away.
As if hypnotized, he relaxed his hands, the broom slipped, and the handle slammed against the hard floor. Dust kicked up. He reached in panic, which somehow made everything like slow motion, trying to catch the one, tiny fleck that soared over the railing and into the square. He was about to reach in and grab it, but he remembered the alarm.
He watched the speck as it moved towards the floating spheres that the Boss had so carefully placed. Eventually it touched one small ball and changed its path so very slightly. Its new path gradually took it into the path of another. An incredibly long time later, much more time than the man could calculate, the Boss put a T-6 on the clipboard. Then the man wheeled out the vacuum more slowly and sadly than usual.
“Slower, Eddie,” the Boss started saying almost every time he appeared.
It was rare for the man with the broom to be sweeping nearby when the Boss was starting a new square, and even rarer for the Boss to invite him to watch. A new grid was opening, a block of nine squares roped off with the Boss inside the middle square, like the center of a tic-tac-toe board.
“Thank you, Eddie,” he said when the man stopped his broom. There could no disturbances during a birth period. “Would you like to watch?”
“Si,” the man said.
“Come, have a seat.”
Without lifting a foot, Eddie was suddenly in a chair only an arms length from the square in which a birth had begun. He watched as the Boss pulled random objects from the pockets of his white jacket, shaped and reshaped them, and placed them at his whim throughout the three dimensions of the square. Some came from the pants pockets, front or back, each pocket yielding a slightly different material that he shaped or mixed with something from another pocket until, in some way only known to him, it all felt right.
Occasionally, he’d observe two objects for a length of time and then pack them together to form something new. Some he’d polish until they shone, glimmered, or glowed. Some of those would hold their light for a very long time while others might fizzle out before their light could escape the square, and they’d crust over dull and cloudy.
Too many fingerprints, thought the man in the chair. His bottom lip twitched a distance less than the thickness of a hair in his moustache.
“Yes, Eddie?” asked the Boss.
“No no, Sir.”
“You wanted to say something. It’s all right. Go ahead.”
“Eddie, it’s okay.”
The man looked down, thinking carefully before speaking because it was the first time he could recall that the Boss had said anything to him other than what he should or should not be doing.
“Senor, what if you took all of those things in your pockets, in one big handful, and just tossed them into the square?”
The Boss waited. “And then what?”
The Boss waited. “Why?”
The man spoke the words he’d rehearsed a million times. “Just to see what would happen.”
The Boss waited. “Nothing would happen, Eddie.”
The man began to sweat. “How do you know, Sir?” The man felt very small. Before he could figure out what to say next, he was back outside the block of nine squares, broom in hand, and the chair gone. He turned, sweeping now in the opposite direction from which he came.
“Break time, Eddie,” said the Boss.
A short time later, or possibly a long time, Eddie was in a chair at a table in a mostly white room. There were no doors, no way in or out, except when the Boss wanted the man either in or out. He noticed a glass in his hand, so he drank as much as he could because he could never be sure when break time would be over. He put down the empty glass, but one tiny drop was stuck in the whiskers beneath his nose.
Lentamente, Eduardo he thought as he passed a clipboard with 139121125-23125 across the top of each page. It was a square that the Boss had checked very recently, so recently that the clipboard was still swinging back and forth on its hook. On the first page it had “C-1” in the box. In the middle of the square hung one ball, nothing else. Nothing moved, nothing shone, nothing spun.
As the man pushed the broom passed that square, he heard a very faint “pop,” and he looked back because sounds were rarely heard within the squares. What had been a solitary ball had become countless smaller ones. Some glowed, some didn’t. Some streaked in a big circle, some stayed put. Some gathered near others while some remained alone. The man’s head had turned so quickly that the tiny drop that had stowed away in his moustache had escaped and was now sailing into the square. Before he was aware of what had happened, it was already too late. The drop hit the inside of the square, immediately slowing as its arc became a very straight path.
The man’s hands began to shake. He wiped his sleeve across his dry forehead, although he wasn’t sure why. He watched for a long time, or maybe a short time, waiting for an alarm or something, but nothing happened. He watched as the drop cruised slowly past the outer objects of a cluster, barely missing one with assorted stripes and coming close to one that was a very unique red color. They were so close that they leaned towards each other, both feeling the other’s presence and trying to touch, but they passed too quickly without a chance to meet. But the path of the drop was slightly altered by the near encounter, and it wobbled slightly askew past a brilliant yellow one that caused the drop to lose a tad of its moisture as it fizzled away.
Beyond the brilliant yellow ball, directly ahead, was a rusty brown one. It wasn’t turning nor moving quickly. It just kind of hung there, right in the line of the drop’s motion. The brownish, rusty one was not as solid as the man first thought, and he noticed how its shape was fluidly changing even though it looked very solid. But then the man realized that it wasn’t changing, but it was moving. As it spun, it also drifted, and the drop drifted towards it. As it spun, the side that faced the brilliant yellow one was a fiery rust, and the opposite side appeared very dark.
The floating drop was about half the size of the rusty ball, and they were on a collision course.
For a brief moment, a smaller, half silver and half black object with tiny holes moved between the rusty one and the drop of liquid, but then the silvery one kept moving on by and cleared the way for an impact. Eddie held his breath as the two objects neared, touched and then the drop broke into hundreds of tinier pieces that stretched away from the object before an unseen force pulled them all back into the rusty orb. The tinier drops mixed with the rock, which then broke apart before the pieces of rock and liquid rejoined each other and slowly started to solidify.
There was hissing as a gray fog shrouded the rock. The man reached down for his broom, not sure if he had been staring a long time or only a few seconds. His first thought was to sweep the floor quickly and get out of there, but he couldn’t break from the voice that constantly reminded him to push “slowly.” After he pushed the broom towards a square close by, he glanced back but could no longer see the rusty, cloudy ball. Instead there was something with a slightly bluish tint, a color he had not noticed before in any other square.
The man swept past a few more squares, relaxing a bit after each and thinking about other things that he would never remember, but then he was startled by the Boss’s bellowing voice.
“S-s-si, Senor,” he trembled.
“Eddie!” The man’s hands trembled. “I did it! We got one!”
The Boss had never been so happy. Eddie shook his head, smiled secretly, and started walking towards the boss’s voice.