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Slush Pile

A Bradbury Furnace converts the loss of information exiting permanently out of existence into heat.
Snelpin did not think of this as he carefully chose the only existent copy of Helica Wire's latest novel. He'd finished tossing in all photos and records of a widowed octogenarian into the machine. It needed more. Hot summer nights drove up demand. Too many households in the township had their AC blasting, their televisions chattering, everything soaking up precious watts.
He put tongs to the fuel pile. An anthology would do, but he wanted a nice quiet night. Into the inferno fell "Rushlight Vigil," and he slammed the steel door shut with satisfaction. The needle kept dipping. A klaxon sounded in the entry control room. Blackout eminent. Something clever with a clock-face by Longines lit up to let him know just how long he had until Generator Facility 149 failed, setting emergency switches to more stalwart aspects of the grid. The system flexed and bent according to the unforeseen, but it was a gymnast past its prime. Ask too much of it, it would break. Catastrophic cascades of failure loomed in the mind of every Incineration Officer.
Ten minutes turned to nine and fifty. He grabbed a printout of the fuel log, itself one of two copies which would be disposed of in turn, scanning for author info.
Rushlight Vigil: Helica Wire, Three Stars. Mobile Number.
He prayed and called on a heavy official black rubberized steel handset.
A yawn. Stammering. Finally words. "Whass wrong?"
"Your latest novel, Rushlight Vigil," Snelpin snapped in his anxiety, "It is powerless."
"Uhuh." Helica replied sleepily, "I won't call it my magnum opus, but I figured it would at least bring five megawatts."
He's multitasking, looking over her publishing record. She'd written for a paperback concern, licensed stuff for some video game series, then a sordid stint of self-publishing. After that, her career went dark, as they say, working for the furnace. No one but the Raters had read any of her books in the last 10 years. They were read, rated, judged to be worthy of informational content, and sent to the slush pile to power civilization. The Raters were a dreary lot, pumped full of forgetful chemicals, unable to ever really recall their nights of ponderous edits and critiques. They'd given her previous works high marks, for the most part. The reviews, of course, turned to kindling long ago.
"Was it," he's spit-balling now, "somehow overly similar to another work in some way? A homage, perhaps? It happens, don't be too defensive."
"You woke me up just to call me a plagiarist?" she demanded, angrily. The old telephone's carbon speaker had the effect of making her voice tinny. Yet, the updated fiber optic provided full sonic clarity. The effect unsettled him.
"No, I don't think that at all," writers could be so sensitive, "I just mean, well, everyone gets a little derivative at times, and with your background..." another alarm went off.
He pulled an emergency lever. A hand-sewn chapbook of an unusually talented fifteen-year-old poet's sonnets fell into the backup furnace and began to blaze.
She was yelling, ranting. Something about "keeping the world lit" and "sold my soul for an above ground pool!"
The backup furnace's bonfire of small vanities glowed faintly. Nothing can be truly destroyed in a closed system. In his mind it made sense, but in another mind of his, the Cosmos was an angry giant, devouring the pure and granting baubles of infrared light in exchange. He placated her with one of those two minds. The other was looking for a needle to move to the right.
Primary Furnace suddenly shifted color from a dull glow to a harsh Cherenkov blue. Snelpin screamed.
She was still on the phone. Needles failed leftwards across the board. It had finally happened. Switches and backup power units plummeted nationwide. The grid would fail from its furthest reaches gradually down to the epicenter. The flow had been reversed.
"What the Hell have you written?" he demanded on the phone. She could barely hear him over the klaxon.
When the author arrived, the Power Room clamored. Engineers threatened engineers. Investigators studied charts and queried raters. Raters stood confused, complicit, and unhelpfully amnesiac. Administrators stood aloof, cool in the face of crisis; their only real purpose.
Snelpin stood near the Bradbury Furnace as it sucked all the energy from the world. He recognized Helica from the inner jacket. He'd lost his composure several times, only to try on several spare composures. His eyes were puffy.
He pointed to a hastily drawn up algorithm on a smart board. It might as well have been cuneiform. "It can't fully process your book, and so the system loops itself." he explained as calmly as he could, and he gave her a wary eye. "I know what you did."
She'd figured it out as well, along the way, too. Her shoulders slumped.
"You wrote yourself a back door into a series." he accused. The blue glow intensified.
"I didn't realize it at the time. It was just a force of habit. Look, there was a time an author could write their ticket..." her voice trailed off. She was handed a pad of yellow paper and a gel pen from a desk drawer.
"Hurry" he pleaded. "Please!" All eyes were on her. Quiet had descended upon the room. Except for the klaxon, which someone remembered to turn off, finally. The eyes weren't judging her. They were begging her. Except for the Raters: they were begging to judge her.
"I'll need coffee," she said, determined now, "and a better chair. And some quiet."
Coffee brewed and delivered like a holy relic arrived with the best seat in the building. And with that, Helica Wire went on to write the most important sequel, free of edits, spell-checks, reviews, or even readers, that her world would never know, one page into the furnace at a time.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 29th, 2019
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