TCL is Looking For First Readers

The Colored Lens is looking for a First Reader to join our team. All of us at The Colored Lens are volunteers, so this isn’t a paid position. There are significant benefits, though. Working as a First Reader gives you excellent insights into the editorial process as well as what editors look for in the slush pile.

We pride ourselves on our 100% personal responses, and aim to have a 48 hour response time for rejections. To do this, we ask readers to read around ten stories a week and provide short personalized responses that include both positive features and the reasons it’s being rejected.

Stories are typically in the 3000-5000 word range, but we accept stories as long as 20,000 words. First reading is handled on an “as able” basis, meaning that whenever a reader has time, he/she logs into the database and selects the next unread story. If a reader doesn’t have time to read on a particular day, they simply let the rest of the team know and then don’t read.

If you are interested in the position, first send us an email at dawn@thecoloredlens.com giving a short overview of your writing experience and attach a writing sample. If you have submitted to us previously, you can simply direct us to your submission instead. We will respond, and the next step is to review the stories on our site and let us know two to three of your favorites and why you liked them, and to write a sample rejection for two to three stories that you don’t like as well.

Trial of the Six

The nuns are drunk; they’ve asked us to bring them the head of Catraz before the sun rises. Lyonn chews off the tip of her thumbnail and spits it to the floor beside Sister Baobosa’s club foot.

“How much?”

“Name your price,” Sister Baobosa says.

Lyonn strokes her chin. My sister was once the greatest warrior in Marrion, but then the wine took her. Now she’s thirty-five and all of eighteen stone, with a belly like a burlap sack ripping at the seams.

“Twelve pieces for me,” she says. “And twelve more for my brother.”

The nuns take in my pubescent moustache and coffee-coloured arms bedecked in jewellery. I expect them to make the sign to acknowledge our mutual faith, but Sister Haerga simply curls a lip. “Why do you need the boy?”

“Prayer,” Lyonn says, delighting in the irony. “Yves is my second, and that’s my offer. Take it or find someone else.”

The nuns confer. The eldest wraps her bony knuckles on the corner table. She gestures in one of the now-defunct finger languages. A few nod in agreement while another belches loudly, as though to settle the matter.

Sister Baobosa stands and drains her flagon, upends it on her head-dress so wine trickles down her cheeks and coif. She approaches, and the stench of her halitosis almost makes me gag.

“How old are you, pretty boy?”

“Seventeen,” I answer.

She extends a crooked finger and traces the yellow nail down my jawline. I stare at her purple teeth and the nuggets of plaque between them.

“You ever killed a woman, Yves?”

I scan the nuns’ faces. “I follow the six,” I say simply, gesturing to my necklaces.

“It was Yves who insisted on bringing you an offering,” Lyonn explains. “He suggested oranges from the orchards of Suiz. I assured him you would prefer the wine.”

Sister Baobosa grins indulgently. “Twelve pieces now, and the rest when you return. Go and sin for us. You have the blessing of the spirits.”

“And don’t forget to bring us the head,” another barks from the back. “We believe only in what we can see.”

They guffaw as Lyonn makes for the door. I linger for one final look at the sisters.

“You forgot to bless it,” I remind them. “The wine.”

Sister Haerga withdraws the flagon from her lips and extends her wine-stained tongue. She makes the sign of the six spirits on her wrinkled forehead, then dredges up a knot of phlegm in her throat and launches it at the floor. It hits the cold stone with a slapping sound, like a slug being catapulted against a wall.

“Satisfied?”

Lyonn beckons me to the door. I follow her out of the Priory with the sisters still cackling into their drinks.

The Tollkeepers

There’s a point down the A217 that narrows to a foot’s width. That’s why there was no avoiding the deer.

I didn’t tell anyone about it until years later. I don’t know why it came to me, the urge to talk about it then – only that it seemed, somehow, like the start. A key, maybe, which if only I’d picked it up then would never have been turned.

The deer’s heart was on the pavement. It had been shoved out of the cupboard of its ribs and was red in the gaudy way of cartoon boxing gloves. A little further on was a chunk of liver. The rest of its body had been pressed up against the side of the pavement. It must have been hit in the night, and snagged repeatedly by every passing lorry since, it had been rolled and pressed, rolled and pressed, against the pavement until its slim legs, broken neck and head had been packed up into a neat, even-sided square. A cuboid of deer.

I didn’t touch it. I was seventeen, fresh from the hygienists with the clean taste of polish in my mouth. I’d always called myself an animal lover but my words hadn’t matched my actions since the last I spoke to Daria Kowalski.

For all my “love”, I left the body on the road. A deer was a deer. There would be no sacred rites, no pressing together of hands for a spirit, no muttered “Namuamidas”. This deer was just the price we paid for travelling this stretch of road.

How much is a season ticket to Banstead, bus master? That’d be two squirrels and a badger.

That night, I didn’t think at all about how a human would look, folded up like a meat pillow. Didn’t even dream of it. Those dreams would come later.

CCTV footage checked later showed nothing. At midnight, the roads were empty under but for the amber wisps of mist under the street lights. At a minute past, they were crowded with shadows.

Foxes, rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, deer, with their tails pricked, noses raised: Animals made of asphalt stared up our driveways, faced our pavements, gazed up at our footbridges with cracked and fissured tarmac eyes.

When I went out, phone in hand, scrolling through pictures friends already awake for jogging and morning shifts had posted on their feeds, there was a grating rattling, like the echoes of a fast-approaching underground train, that I didn’t hear so much as feel through the soles of my sandals. My brother, Akito, was squatting on the pavement. He was taking pictures of a concrete squirrel, posting them to his Discord.

He leaned closer. His hand and phone came barely millimetres away from the squirrel’s pale grey nose.

I grabbed his elbow. “Don’t touch it.”

“I wasn’t going to.” Akito shook me off, but retreated from the pavement’s edge. “They’re so real-looking, Mamoru. They’ve even got those little dimples where the whiskers go.”

The news was flowing from the neighbour’s open window. A reporter was urging people to stay indoors, to wait for further announcements, to not aggravate the roads.

“Charlotte? Robert?”

Our neighbour Roslynne Cadwater had gotten it in her head that my name “Mamoru” sounded too much like “mammary” to be “decent.” Our first Christmas here, she took it upon herself to gift our family “English names” in her card. For some reason, this made me “Charlotte” and Akito “Robert.”

I didn’t mind it. My name meant “to protect.” I’d never been able to live up to it, not when Dad had lived with us and not when Daria had needed me. So much for protecting. All I’d ever done was freeze and watch. When Mrs Cadwater called me “Charlotte,” it was a relief. A guilty one, because it was wrong to let her trample over the name Mum picked for me, but it was what it was.

“Is this some prank of yours, dears?” Mrs Cadwater squinted at the statues. Without her glasses, she couldn’t see the statues filling the length of the entire road. “Because if it is, you’d better clear these all away soon. I’ve got a grocery delivery coming at nine.”

Collar jangling, Mrs Cadwater’s old Alaskan malamute Ada pushed past her to jump out amongst the asphalt statues.

“Oh, Ada, no, come back—“

Mrs Cadwater stepped off the pavement, and every asphalt head on the road turned.

Before I could warn her, shout, do something, the pack of asphalt animals flowed towards her.

The World That Only You and I Know

When he speaks, his mouth bursts into explosions. Little pip-pop of words combusting like carbonated confectionary.

He takes a bite of his potato wrap and makes a face.

“Tastes terrible,” he informs us, unaware of how his every word is a trajectory, a new data point. Terrible, seventeen million of us whisper among ourselves, each sounding fascinated and dismayed in turn. The vagrant can’t hear us; no, not all of us.

“Your palate is finite,” we tell him. “It won’t sustain you.”

Giving us a quizzical look, he takes a tissue and wipes his mouth with it.

“Wazzat?” he asks. “What’s finite?”

It ought to be a philosophical question yet in the red mouth of a homeless Messic trying to enjoy his sauced potato wrap and failing at it, the query loses gravity, half its weight in worth. The doors of the diner chime as a visitor walks in. Another Messic from the lower borough district. We know this new arrival: his name, his age, his history, his chronic ailments, his connections; though he doesn’t know us. It’s fortunate that ignorance doesn’t trouble him. Not the way it troubles us.

The Messic vagrant sitting across our table acknowledges the newcomer with a languid jerk of his chin. He sets off more explosions in the network, and we see the chain of links forming between them, a web that’s all encompassing and endless.

The Messic’s question hangs between us, unanswered.

What is finite?

Limited. Scarce. Not equals one over zero. Bound. Guileless. Mortal. We run through the explanations, the metaphors, musing over each one while the vagrant sitting across from us grins through his sauce stained teeth. He wears a lime-green balaclava, a patched overcoat that’s two sizes too big on his emaciated frame and a scarf wrapped around his neck like a noose, ends trailing over his back. In his ill-fitting clothes and faded shoes, he lives at the very edge of society and should know what finite is. As far as it goes, he certainly stands at the tip of it.

“Blue Sky,” we offer solemnly. “Finite… is Blue Sky.”

[!Logos. Lapse in logic. Availability bias. FALSE!]

The vagrant never hears our alarms setting off, doesn’t even know what we are. Instead, he chortles at our answer and leans over, his mouth splitting into a wide grin.

“You’re in deep. Deep till your neck,” he tells us, making a slicing motion at his scarf.

Perhaps he’s right.

Cold Shoulder

Sarah expected the room to be white. The rooms in the movies were always white. When the black suits with ear pieces showed up at her door, she’d just assumed it would be a white room.

The brown, overstuffed couch was covered in leather so soft she couldn’t believe it used to be skin. The door opened and a generic man in a pressed blue suit with a white shirt and red tie stepped in. He pulled off his frameless glasses and rubbed them on his sleeve. “Good evening, Mrs. Stewart.”

“It’s Begress.”

He stopped cleaning and lifted his eyes. “My apologies, Ms.” He raised an eyebrow.

Sarah gave a curt nod.

He put his glasses back on. “Ms. Begress.” He walked to the desk and picked up the manila folder. “I apologize for the mistake.”

Sarah hadn’t seen the folder there, blending into the oak desk. But now she couldn’t unsee it. Nobody kept anything good in manila folders. It was always taxes and divorce papers. Even the good stuff, like property or car deeds, were all there just in case something went wrong. “It’s ok.”

“You’re file still has your name as Stewart.” He laid one leg up on the corner of his desk and unbuttoned his jacket.

“I haven’t filed the papers yet. I’m going next week.”

His lips drew to a line and he ran his hand through his thinning, brown hair. “I see. It’s a hassle, all that paper work.” He flipped through the papers in the folder. His fingers had thick calluses in strange places and the edges of his nails were rough.

“Second biggest hassle I’ll have to deal with this week.” Sarah leaned back and let herself sink into the couch. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and gave her best annoyed look.

“Yes, I’m sorry, Ms. St… Begress. I apologize for the secrecy, it’s part of the job.” He slid off the desk and extended a chewed-up hand. “My name is Agent Johnson.”

His handshake was too firm. He had her locked in his office in the middle of DC and he still had to show how strong he was. Sarah wanted to slap him for it, but she just waited, trying to keep the frustration off her face. “Nice to meet you.”

Johnson turned away and retreated behind his desk. “You must be wondering why you’re here.” He looked up, waiting for Sarah to answer, but she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of answering useless questions. He continued, “It’s about your husband.”

“Ex.”

Johnson looked at her over his glasses. “Paperwork hasn’t gone through on that either?”

“Not yet. It’ll go as soon as I can get him to sign it.”

“How long have you been separated from your husband?”

“Awhile.”

“Can you be more specific, please?”

There Can Be No Hermits

When my friend Bruno stopped by my house for a visit, I knew right away he was a secret drop-in. He didn’t smell like Bruno, you know? He didn’t quite move like how I remembered.

Sniffing out signs of introversion — that’s their M.O. The congeniality police will report you if they suspect any evidence of introspective activities.

If you fail a secret drop-in, you might get a citation three weeks later. Maybe a fine for inhospitable behavior. Sometimes worse. It all depends on what they find.

You can tell a secret drop-in if they say stuff like Hello stranger or Oh I was worried about you or Hey, just thought I’d touch base. It’s been a while.

Seriously, touch base? Baseball hasn’t been a thing for two decades. You want to touch base?

They disguise themselves as your closest friends or relatives. But if you’re smart, you can tell the difference. The fakes are like super-extraverted versions of whoever they’re pretending to be.

Pay attention. Though they act familiar, a secret drop-in will display subtle signs of having never met you before. For instance, they’ll look at things your friends wouldn’t look at, like your name tag. Or your hands. A close friend wouldn’t examine your hands. Hands are only interesting if you’ve never seen them before.

They ask you all the usual catch-up questions: What’ve you been up to lately? What are you doing this weekend? Are you seeing anyone? Oh is it serious? How’s work going? Do you like your coworkers?

The first thing Bruno did was glance at the Hi I’m: Tobi emblazoned in blue stitching on my right breast pocket. Then he said, “Ey, Tobi, bud. How long has it been?”

“What a surprise,” I said, mustering up as much enthusiasm as I could. “Come in, friend. It’s been too long. Have a seat.”

To pass a secret drop-in you have to tick each box on their checklist: Ask if they want something to drink. Ask if they’d like to have a seat. Ask if they want to use the bathroom before they leave. Suggest a future time and place to hang out. Show them recent pictures on your phone. Agree to look at anything they show you on their phone. I mean anything. Doesn’t matter how stupid.

He walked passed my television and looked down at my game console, noting the single controller. “Nice setup. Whatcha been playing? Where’s your other controller?” he asked.

I had to think fast. “Oh, I let my neighbor borrow it. We play all the time. Online multi-player. His controller broke. So I was just being nice by letting him borrow mine. I might just let him keep it, actually. I can pick up another one tomorrow or something,” I said, hoping the lie didn’t sound too forced.

Anything that implicates you in a solitary activity will throw up a red flag. If they even see a book, forget about it. At that point, they’ll just make up an excuse and leave because they know they got you. I haven’t owned a physical book in years.

I tried to distract him by engaging in more conversation: “You look good, man. You shaved for once.”

He touched his jaw. “Oh yeah. I was on my way to a work thing. This mixer they’re having for a new hire.”

“They give parties for new hires? That’s awesome.”

“Yeah, we want to make them feel welcomed. Make them see how collegial we all are.”

The Bruno I knew only shaved about once a month. I picked up a small basketball and tossed it to him. I nodded at the mini-hoop hanging from my bedroom door. Faux Bruno tossed up a shot. Swish. Then he winked and pointed at me and said, “Nice assist, bud.”

“I should suggest that at my job. I think it’s a great idea,” I said, doing my best to continue the pointless banter.

“Some of the smaller workplaces make excuses. They say it’s not in the budget to do stuff like that. But that’s never true. If bosses do their due diligence, they can find the funds. Social camaraderie is an integral part of any successful enterprise. I’m not sure if you know, but any workplace can file for a new employee welcoming grant from the Workplace Congeniality Foundation. Just about any business can qualify. Maybe mention that to your manager on Monday.”

“Oh I definitely will. Thanks.” What I wanted to know was when the hell did Bruno become an expert on workplace spending? Is this guy even trying? He must be new at the whole imposter thing.

“You’re welcome, bud,” Faux Bruno said.

The first time I got in trouble for asocial behavior was back in college. I had locked myself in my dorm room for two straight days to study for midterms. Studying is best done in groups, they said. That’s when I learned all about the Department of Congeniality. The Workplace Congeniality Foundation is one of their subsidiaries. The whole thing is a sprawling umbrella corporation, a giant tech conglomerate that profits off of people staying connected and always sharing. It’s the very same department that monitors your social media to see if you’ve become underactive.

If you’ve been particularly underactive, that’ll tip them off. In fact, that might have been why they were visiting me. I had been slacking.

When you’re online, it’s always a good idea to randomly like stuff or share things as much as possible, on whatever social platforms you visit. Even if it has no significance whatsoever. At least it shows that you’re active.

Don’t even try to delete a profile. You’ll find yourself embroiled in a full-on intervention. They make you attend social skills rehab. Seminars on how to stay connected. Classes on how to maintain your presence. Those are the worst. Trust me. If you’re a closet introvert, you really don’t want to meet the kind of people who teach those seminars for a living. Holy hell.

Bruno looked at the pics on my fridge. He laughed at the right things. He brought up the correct anecdotes. He did everything right to show me he was nominally the best friend he was supposed to be. But I knew the truth. The real truth. Bruno and I hadn’t spoken in years. I couldn’t even tell you who ghosted who. In fact, despite being ostensibly connected to many of the people that littered my friends lists, I hadn’t seen any of them face-to-face in a long long time.

I didn’t really have any friends anymore. My last real friend was my illegal cat, Teddy. He was the best. I got him back when you could still get cats on the black market, shortly after they were banned as pets for their innate aloofness.

As Bruno gave me a hug and said his goodbyes, my palms were still sweating. I hoped he wouldn’t see the stark reality that lurked back behind my eyes. That my dream was to become a hermit.

I know that’s virtually impossible. There can be no hermits. “Hey, you sure you don’t wanna use the toilet before you head out?”

“Nah I’m good, bud. As always, thanks for the hospitality.”

“Hope to see you again soon,” I said, closing the door, resisting the impulse to slam it.

I took a deep breath and sat on my couch for six minutes. I stood up and looked out the window. At the seven minute mark, the coast was clear. I decided for good measure I’d go out and check my mail, just so I could get a view around the neighborhood, to see if he was really gone.

I opened my mailbox and pulled out some bills. That’s when I noticed the blue and orange car in the distance. A fleet of congeniality police turned the corner on to my block. No, no, no. Not again. My heart sank.

In what felt like slow motion, they parked one after another in front of my house. I dropped my mail and raised my hands up, open palms facing the cruisers. The tinted rear window of the lead car rolled down to reveal Bruno’s face, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, his lips motionless, without even the hint of a smile.

The Hero

There’s nothing more heartbreaking than a man wearing just an undershirt, all vulnerable and exposed like a child. I found him in the bathroom that way one night. He had been too sick to care for himself but had made it that far. He fought me at first, but I cleaned him up and took care of him. The sun rose to find me wrapped protectively around him, having shushed him to sleep.

That had been early in our marriage when we were still polite to each other like strangers. After that night, I’d seen him at his weakest, and he had no more secrets from me.

Project Lifeline

“We’re losing her,” my ragged whisper is almost inaudible amongst the roar of CPU fans screaming from the server racks.

Sweat pools on my forehead and drips, stinging, into my eyes despite the frigid air blowing through the HVAC system. I wipe it away and try not to stare at the gurney where Carrie lies. It’s hard to pretend I can’t hear the alarms from the half-dozen monitors situated around her either. Pretend there isn’t anything to worry about.

I try and fail because I can’t stop thinking about the fact I killed my wife.

“Dee,” I say, voice cracking. “Start chest compressions.”

Dee springs into action. A short, elfin girl as pale as I am dark, with a hefty blonde ponytail, Dee’s been my right-hand for two years now. She’s hands down the best AI programmer I’ve ever met. With her on the team, the three of us–Carrie, Dee, and I–have created something grand. Something spectacular.

Something I’ll burn to the ground if it means saving Carrie.

I take a harsh, steadying breath, the taste of ozone and sweat sweet on the air and look at the monitor in front of me. The console window in the top right is a stream of insanity–just raw text and gibberish I barely understand. The rest of the window has the design sense of an Emo band’s antiquated MySpace page thanks to Carrie; all pinks and blacks. It makes my eyes bleed, but those control panels are what hold Carrie’s consciousness, so I squint and search.

The server farm, via the bio-digital interface hooked up to the gurney with zip ties and duct-tape, allows the transference of human consciousness out of a body temporarily. With enough practice–and funding–it can move a mind from a body to a machine, or even, if technology advances enough, to a clone.

And it works. At least, it worked until Carrie. We’ve done this dozens of times with Dee and me, but Carrie… Carrie leads the Department of Defense presentation next week and wanted to know what it felt like. She wanted to see the demo simulation in person.

An ache builds in my stomach. It’s getting hard to breathe. My vision blurs… and I scream a curse and hammer the panic away on the stainless-steel desk until my right hand erupts in bright, flushing pain. I might’ve broken something, but it’s worked. That nervous energy has coiled into a tight collection of ball-bearings in my gut, painful but contained.

Find the logic loop, close it, then re-upload her mind, I say to myself, an emotionless cold descending on me. Bring Carrie back.

I search for what feels like days, the harsh screech of alarms, nails on a chalkboard. The CPU core-temp rises as the servers try to load-balance Carrie’s consciousness across them. Digging through panels and parsing live logs searching for something, anything, that shows me how we killed her brain activity when extracting a copy of her mind.

I find nothing. And it’s my fault.

All of this is my fault.

My fingers drop from the keyboard. She’s gone.

I killed her.

From the corner of my eye, I see Dee step away from Carrie’s body, stare at the electrocardiograph.

Carrie has a heartbeat.

Then Dee is on me, shoving me from the chair. “Rahul, move!”

I stumble away, almost face-planting into a server rack, but don’t argue. “What are you doing?”

Dee doesn’t say anything. Instead, she pops open an admin terminal and types, new code flashing on the screen with blinding speed. Dozens–hundreds–of lines of code stream from her fingers and onto the screen, full-formed and perfectly written. It almost looks like she’s copied it from her mind and pasted it onto the terminal.

She wraps the last curly brace and slaps the Enter key.

The server racks exhale. Freezing air from the HVAC system wafts over me. My face feels like it’s covered in icicles.

But the beeps of Carrie’s monitors even out, a steady rhythm instead of frenzied screeches.

Now there’s only one low tone issuing from the row of machines.

Carrie’s chest rises and falls normally, but brain activity is still flat.

I hold out a hand toward Carrie, but Dee waves me away.

My hands are shaking.

Through a tight throat, I whisper, “It’s not working.”

“Shh,” Dee snaps, holding up a trembling finger.

Leaning over her shoulder, I squint at the last line of code. It’s an export directive pointing to a set of IPv6 addresses. None of them look familiar in the least and, as I stare at them, they look like they have too many characters in them.

What the hell is Dee doing?

“That can’t be right,” I mutter, reaching out to the monitor, finger hovering, unsteady next to the line. “Why–what–are you exporting?”

Dee doesn’t answer, but does raise her finger again, slowly pushing my arm out of the way. After a moment, she cocks her head like she’s listening to something, then her fingers drop to the keyboard and flash again.

This time when she finishes, a textual download prompt kicks in. Around us the servers roar as CPU and case fans are pegged, sending a warm breeze coasting through the room despite the HVAC’s best efforts. My phone, sitting on the table next to Dee, tones repeatedly with overheating and storage capacity notifications.

Whatever Dee is doing, it’s pushing our server cluster to the brink. The prompt hits 100%, then flashes again with another progress bar, this one labeled upload.

The electric panel behind the server racks sparks and one of the long rows spins down, groaning like an old man leaning into an easy chair.

“Dee–”

“We already uploaded that chunk, don’t worry.” She looks at the prompts, closes her eyes, then says more to herself than me: “Don’t worry.”

Another series of circuits pop with machine-gun efficiency, crack-crack-crack, and two more racks power down.

And then it’s done. All at once, the fans in the remaining server racks slow and transform back into their gentle hum. The freezing air of the HVAC wipes away the lingering heat.

My eyes snap to the brain wave monitor as it quivers to life. Somehow my hand is on Dee’s shoulder. She’s trembling, cheeks flushed, tongue darting over chapped lips.

“What’d you do, Dee?” I ask, unable to keep the awe from my voice.

Carrie was gone. I was so sure of it.

But she’s not and the flush running through my body is a heady mix of relief, joy, and confusion.

Dee looks up at me, the corners of her mouth twitching into a smile. “I saved her.”

Then her smile fades, and her eyes go dark. There’s something there I can’t quite identify. Something shaky and scared. Dread?

She looks at the monitor. “I saved her.”

The way she says it sounds like she’s not sure.

Heroes of the Bridge

“Well, I’m all for tearing it down.” The speaker was a busty young woman in a leopard-print trench coat. “There’s absolutely no question that it glorifies oppressive dictatorship.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” The man turned up the collar of his vintage tweed jacket against the chill of the foggy fall night. “Vladimir Lenin’s a symbol of idealistic revolution, and we could certainly use some more of that these days.”

“Oppressive, idealistic–who cares?” The woman stumbled in her spike-heeled leather boots, then righted herself. “All I know is the mayor’s office is getting complaints about that stupid statue, and it’s an election year.”

Lenin? Were they talking about my friend Len?

The conversation faded away as the pair made their way down the hill and out of my park. I spent the next few hours worrying. At last the city streets emptied, lights went out in the old brick apartment buildings, and Len’s heavy footsteps grated on the wet pavement.

Buy One Get One Free Tsunamis

The sea shook late in the afternoon, just as Kalen was finishing his shift. At first he thought the freighter had run aground, but they were miles from land in the empty Pacific. Stacks of Cubacon brand intermodal containers rattled like mad, and Kalen nearly lost his footing as he darted to tighten the safety straps. Waves drenched his back and the deck resounded with groans of plastic.

“Keep them steady!” Mr. Gupta, one of the ship’s supers, stood against the railing, well out of the way of the teetering Cubes.

A cable snapped on one of the stacks. Kalen darted over to secure it. The sea pitched and shuddered and the Cubes started to tip.

Then the rumbling settled. The waves returned to their usual sway beneath the freighter, and all was quiet on the Alphacorp Seaway.

“That was a big one,” said Mr. Gupta. He waved a hand at the towers of containers. “Get them all inspected. Thoroughly.”

Kalen sighed. He’d never gotten used to earthquakes at sea. They had been more frequent lately, and this one could not have had worse timing. He had already checked the Cubes four times today, but the company required they be inspected from scratch any time there was a weather event, and so he began his rounds all over again.

He mounted a hydraulic ladder and raised himself to the top of a stack, examining the Cubes one at a time. The sun cast long rectangular shadows across the deck. He worked quickly, with practiced efficiency, tugging cables and scanning the multicolored plastic casings.

It took three hours to get to the bottom of the final stack. One more Cube to go and he could finally call it a day. This one was light blue and filled with rice. He tested the security cables by hand, then took out his U-Pad and paced in a circle, running an autoscan for structural integrity. Everything looked good until he rounded the third corner. The device flashed red and squawked at him.

“WARNING. Potential compromise detected.” A blinking light appeared on the screen, indicating a small puncture on the top of the Cube.

“You’re kidding.” Kalen scowled at the big blue container. It was the lowest in a stack of seven; he would need to undo all the cables and get on the crane and move every single one to check on the puncture. It was like a prank, if scanning programs could do pranks.

He checked over his shoulder to make sure there were no supers around. The U-Pad blinked and he sneered at it. “Nope. Not today.” He typed in an override code. The warning disappeared. He made a mental note to double check this one tomorrow, just in case.