By the time the Universe ended (again), the planet Earth had already been blown up by its own star for almost half a billion years. Those who worked in the Earth Department, considered seasonal employees, were always terribly bored as they waited tables or worked retail jobs for the 500 million-ish years it took for the Universe to restart. Needless to say, there was an electric tingle of excitement in the air as everyone gathered into the board room for the kick-off meeting.
Earth had only been approved through the Finance Department nine Universes ago, and there were still quite a few kinks to work out. Everyone had spent the off-season brainstorming improvements and was more than ready to share their ideas. Thankfully, someone had remembered to bring pastries and plug in the coffee pot this time. At the last planning session there had been no refreshments, and the employees had quickly become disgruntled. Co-workers huffed phrases like, “Not my job description,” while simultaneously accusing one another of not pulling their own weight. It almost came to blows, until someone smartly suggested they blame everything on Janine. Everyone agreed and after that things settled down.
Still, the meeting had started off on shaky ground, and Earth IX had suffered. The planet had been condemned and the whole solar system quarantined. It was quite the embarrassing fiasco, and the Earth Department was determined to rebuild its reputation.
Today Janine was standing by the coffee pot, making sure everyone who entered the room knew there was fresh coffee and mini-bagels available, even though she had had nothing to do with bringing them to the meeting. A few folks muttered, “Thanks, Janine,” as they tore open sugar packets or plucked a butter pat from the bowl. Janine smiled modestly, accepting their misplaced appreciation while at the same time not lying, exactly.
Finally the lights began to flicker and the small-talk died down (to the relief of all the introverts). Everyone turned their attention to the front of the room, where a figure in a sharp navy pinstripe suit now stood. He called himself B.P.H.D., which stood for “Ball Park Hot Dog,” his favorite food. The Ball Park Hot Dog had been invented in a happy accident during Earth IV after an intern in the Mammals Department had mistakenly been included in an Edible Things Department email. Ball Park Hot Dogs had been a staple in all versions of Earth since.
“Good to see everyone,” said B.P.H.D. “I know you all have some terrific ideas for Earth X and I look forward to hearing them all. So who wants to go first? Sudafed?”
Sudafed rose, tucking her long blonde hair behind one ear. When she spoke, her voice was high and clear, like an echo at the apex of Mt. Everest.
“I feel like there’s always too many bugs,” she said and several people in the room nodded in agreement. “Even after we introduce reptiles and fish and birds, there are still way too many bugs. I mean, in Earth IX we had multiple ice ages, several floods, and the humans got the whole place condemned, but there were still too many bugs.”
B.P.H.D. rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But the way we’ve always set it up, bugs are a staple of every ecosystem on Earth. Without bugs, life wouldn’t be possible.”
“I don’t care. They’re icky.”
B.P.H.D. sighed. “And how many bugs would be acceptable for Earth X, do you think?”
“No, just five.”
“Thank you, Sudafed. Next?”
“I have some ideas.”
“Ugh. No, Janine, but thanks.”
A small, furry creature with large yellow eyes stood up. “I have a proposal,” it squeaked and half the room said, “Aww.” Then it hiccupped, and the other half of the room blessed its little heart.
B.P.H.D. smiled warmly. “Yes, Mr. Snugglekins?”
“Last time too many people from other worlds showed up and we ran out of food. It was kind of a bummer.”
“Yes, I recall.”
Mr. Snugglekins wrinkled his nose cutely. “So I was thinking this time we could avoid that problem if we just made everything edible!”
B.P.H.D. frowned. “So you want to make food out of rocks and dirt?”
“No no no, silly head,” said Mr. Snugglekins. “I’m saying, let’s do away with all that yucky inedible nature stuff – bleh! – and just make the whole world out of lollipops and cotton candy fluff and chocolate ice cream!” He spun around in circles as the room gave him a standing ovation.
B.P.H.D. pretended to write this idea on his clipboard as he waited for the applause to die down. “That is, um, definitely something to think about for Earth X. Thank you, Mr. Snugglekins. But what if instead, we just asked everyone to RSVP, and then put a cap on how many people could be there at a time?”
Mr. Snugglekins giggled and shook his head. “That’s so lame. Who would want to come to a party like that?”
“Well, we’re not really planning a party. This is work,” B.P.H.D. said.
Mr. Snugglekins shrugged. “I guess that’s why you’re the boss man, boss man.” He sat down and whispered something to the sacred cow beside him, then they both looked at B.P.H.D. and giggled.
B.P.H.D. straightened his sleeve cuffs and searched the room. “Who else has an idea?”
“Anyone besides Janine? Yes, Cadillac Jack?”
“Oh, uh, I don’t have any ideas, but I wanted to let everyone know that the Black Hole Committee said it’ll be conducting a test flush in our galaxy this time, so if we don’t want the Earth to get sucked in, we need to make sure it’s securely fastened.”
This time B.P.H.D. really did make a note. “Got it. Thanks, C.J. Anyone else?”
“Um, I’m standing right here, with my hand raised, as you can clearly see.”
“When you learn how to plug in a coffee pot, then we’ll talk. Who else has an idea?”
An ethereal wisp floated out of its chair and began to radiate love. The people sitting around it gently placed their coffee mugs in their laps, looked up at the wisp and sighed blissfully. “I have a suggestion,” the wisp whispered.
B.P.H.D. was standing out of the wisp’s radius and was therefore still able to think clearly. “Yes, Lindsey?”
“I have some ideas for new animals this time.”
“Great idea!” “You’re so brilliant.” “I love you, Lindsey.”
Lindsey looked down at the adoring fans seated around her and smiled. She radiated more love and they fell out of their seats.
“Er, um,” said B.P.H.D., “What sort of animals did you have in mind?”
Lindsey referred to her notes. “First, a koalaphunt. It’s looks like a koala but it’s the size of an elephant. So that more people can cuddle it at a time.”
“You’re so brilliant.” “Ko-ah-love-phant.” “Please marry me.”
“My second idea was to give snakes legs. They just seemed so unhappy being on their bellies all the time.”
“You’re sooo thoughtful.” “All of your ideas are amazing, Lindsey.” “I love being in love with you.”
B.P.H.D. took a step backwards just to make sure he was definitely out of range of her aura before he replied. “We did that in Earths III and IV, if you’ll recall. We called them lizards. Ring a bell?”
The wisp stopped radiating love and was quiet for a moment. Then in the span of a single femtosecond, she flashed to a scorched black and released a wail that had been known to drive entire civilizations to insanity. B.P.H.D. took a giant leap backwards, but Lindsey had already returned herself to an ethereal wisp and settled back in her chair. Her admirers gathered their coffee mugs from off the floor and returned to their seats, smoothing their hair, clicking their pens to make sure they still worked, and steadfastly refusing to make eye contact with anyone.
B.P.H.D. cleared his throat. “Well, Lindsey, if that’s all—”
“Oh, it is.”
“Can I say something now?”
B.P.H.D. grit his teeth. “Janine, we are trying to have a meeting here. No one cares what kind of bagels you brought.”
Janine bit her tongue.
“Anyone else?” B.P.H.D. sighed, rubbing his temples.
Janine shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Make Earth spin the other way.”
“Maybe trade places with Venus?”
“More moons. The Jupiter Department keeps hogging them all.”
Janine scratched her elbow, which didn’t itch.
“Dinosaurs and humans living together.”
“Glue Pangea together better!”
“Humans first, then dinosaurs.”
Janine cleared her throat.
“Plants that eat animals.”
“Not so much gravity.”
“Give the humans feathers instead of hair.”
Janine took a bold step and unplugged the coffee pot.
The room fell silent.
“Janine!” gasped B.P.H.D. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I have an idea!” she replied. “Please just listen to me!”
B.P.H.D. looked around the room. Half the people were glaring at Janine and the other half were looking down at their cell phones. B.P.H.D. shrugged. “Go on then, if you must.”
“Thank you,” Janine said tersely as she tried to smooth the wrinkles out of the front of her skirt. She walked to the front of the room to address her coworkers. “So I was thinking, you know, most of us have been working here since the beginning and with each new Universe and new Earth, we always try to do something new. But everything new is usually just a variation on something old.”
B.P.H.D. tapped the tip of his pencil. “Know what this is, Janine?”
“Correct. Make one.”
Janine spoke faster. “Right, so, to make a long story short—”
“—I was thinking what if we all went down there this time and lived among the humans?”
One quarter of one-half of the room stopped glaring at Janine, and she took this as a sign to keep talking. “Like a field trip for research, to make all future Earths the best they can be.” Five-ninths of the people on their phones debated putting their devices away. And four-ninths actually did. Janine smiled and spoke even faster. “We keep throwing all these ideas out there and trying new things every time but what if we all actually went there and lived like humans do?”
“Like, in nests?”
Janine swallowed before answering. “Sure, if you want. But I was thinking more like caves, or condos. It just depends on the time period.”
“Would our bodies age like humans?”
“I guess so,” Janine replied. “If we wanted this to really be an authentic experience.”
A small hand rose up from the middle of the room. “Would we die?”
Nine-tenths of all the people in the room were now paying attention to Janine. B.P.H.D. was wondering if there was any way he could steer the conversation back to the unplugged coffee pot.
“If we agreed to let our bodies age, then yes, we would die,” Janine said. The crowd gasped. Janine backtracked. “Well, I mean, we wouldn’t die die; just our bodies would.”
“Then what would happen?”
“I really don’t know,” Janine said. “Maybe we could immediately become a different human, or maybe we could just come back here, or maybe—”
“Or maybe we could ask someone with experience in Mortal Life?” B.P.H.D. said, seizing the opportunity to yank the attention away from Janine. “After all, I did spend time as a human during Earth I, which it seems you forgot.”
Janine blushed. “Yeah, sorry, I guess I did. So, ok, you just come back here—”
“No. First you have to go through decontamination.”
“Ok, so then after that you return—”
“No, then you have to go through re-acclimation.”
“Ok, but then you get to—”
“No. After that it’s salivation.”
“Yes. Then, um, it’s sanitation.”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t question me, Janine. Then after that it’s, um, it’s…perforation.”
“Forgive me, but I think maybe you’re remembering things incorrectly, B.P.H.D.”
“Whatever. The point is, switching to a mortal life and back again is extremely difficult, time-consuming, and above all expensive.”
“I’ve thought about all that, B.P.H.D., and I understand your concern, but despite the risks and costs, I still believe this would be a fun—”
“Fun? This is work, not mowing your lawn at 6 AM, or however it is you spend your weekends.”
“Sorry, B.P.H.D., but it seems like a really good, educational—”
“Good? Educational?” B.P.H.D. shook his head. “Janine, the first thing you should have asked yourself before bringing this idea to the meeting was, Does anyone even want to do it? You could have saved yourself a lot of time because, as you can see by the lack of interest in here—” B.P.H.D. waved an arm over the crowd and stopped.
Twenty-twentieths of the room was now paying attention. B.P.H.D.’s eyebrows rose to the middle of his forehead. “Does…does everyone here want to go to Earth?”
The 22,042,691.5 souls seated in the room simultaneously nodded.
B.P.H.D. took a small step forward and looked imploringly at the people in the first row. “Even after what they did to me? You all want to take that risk?” After receiving his answer, B.P.H.D. sighed and hung his head. “I don’t even know what HR is going to say. The insurance will be a nightmare in itself! And I’m sure other departments are going to want to organize their own field trips…” He looked up at Janine, who gave him a nervous smile. B.P.H.D. found himself returning it. “Well, Janine, if this goes well, it could go really well. And if it doesn’t—”
B.P.H.D. shook his head. “No, I won’t fire you. How could I? You’re the only one who remembered to bring pastries this time.”
Janine’s smile faltered for a second.
“I would, however, turn you into one of those anglerfish the Committee of Weird Things came up with, sink you to the bottom of the ocean and let you spend the rest of your ‘field trip’ in complete darkness.”
Janine thought for a moment before extending her hand. “Fair enough, B.P.H.D.” B.P.H.D. shook it. “I won’t let you down, I promise.”
The room erupted. “Yay!” “Woo-hoo!” “We’re going to Earth!”
B.P.H.D. looked down at his watch, then clapped his hands for attention. “All right, the Universe launch party is about to start, so let’s all pack it up and head down the hall. Good meeting, everyone.”
B.P.H.D. stood to the side as everyone filed out of the room. Janine caught his eye and winked before she was swept along with the crowd. B.P.H.D. munched on an everything bagel while he waited. Finally he was the last one left. He looked around to make sure the room was empty, then clapped his hands twice.
The lights went out and the room became a black void in time and space. B.P.H.D. made sure to close the door behind him when he left.