Flash Fiction: According to the Latest Poll

Private Dave Duncan sensed his superior officer looming up behind him in the darkened control room. His shoulders tightened as he waited for the inevitable question. But the captain seemed to be holding off, timing his response for the highest possible dramatic effect.

“No, Captain, I don’t have the poll results yet.” Dave held back a grin, enjoying the wave of irritation emanating from his boss at being denied his moment.

“Well, when will—”

“Ah…wait a second”—Dave performed a few machinations over his keyboard, which he’d programmed to emit soft clicking sounds that he found oddly satisfying—”the report’s just coming in now.” He sat straighter as the results filled his screen. Did they really just agree to…? He squinted into the monitor as if he hadn’t read it right the first time. “Yes, Captain. Ninety percent say it’s time. Eighty percent say it’s far overdue.”

“Really.” The captain tapped a finger against his chin, another irksome habit, but Dave hadn’t developed a workaround for it yet. “Exactly how did you phrase the question?”

“Cloaked and open-ended, as usual. Confirmed by two other cross-wordings. Following your own protocols.”

The captain stopped pacing at the private’s work station and leaned closer. “Show me your back end.”

I’ll show you my back end. He’d been working for this insufferable prig for what felt like eons, and where was the trust? As if he’d make up a statistic with such profound consequences. He took a deep breath and toggled to the detail page.

Dave pointed to the line of code in question. “See? It’s all there. According to the algorithm, they knew exactly what they were responding to. Captain. They’re ready. They want this. They want to be put out of their misery. Believe me.” He’d also been doing satellite surveillance. What he saw from space confirmed the psychographics from the ground and the communications chatter. But if he tried to explain that to the captain it might be even more confusing.

“And you’re absolutely sure about that?”

“Captain…”

“I know, I know. I’m a bit of a perfectionist. But if we act on this data, it’s not something we can undo. Private Duncan, we are no longer in simulation mode. If we’re wrong, we will be facing grave accusations.”

Silence fell between them.

“I know what I’m doing,” Dave said softly. His voice blending with the low hum of the equipment. “The data is there.”

More silence. “All right,” the captain said. “Start launch sequence.”

Dave pulled up the launch app. Entered a series of increasingly complicated passcodes.

The red button pulsed on the screen.

“Wait—”

Dave sighed. “What, you want to push the button?”

“You scoff, but as commander of this ship, I feel it’s my responsibility.”

Dave backed off. The captain leaned forward and pressed the “enter” key. The screen did what screens do.

LAUNCH ASTEROID

A series of dots, like drumming fingers, pulsed along the screen. That part of the script seemed amusing to Dave while he was writing the program, an homage to certain apps he’d seen, but now it rang hollow.

ASTEROID LAUNCHED

More dots. A small doubt inched its way into Dave’s mind, making him queasy. What if—

SUCCESS. TARGET DESTROYED.

Silence. Except for the hum of the equipment, and the blood pounding in Dave’s ears.

Two pats landed on his shoulder. “Good work, Private.”

His footsteps retreated. Dave felt cold suddenly, blood draining from his face. Did I correct for—

“It’s really too bad, in the scheme of things,” the captain said, pausing at the control room door. “It was a pretty little planet, at least from a distance.”

Then he left. Mouth dry and fingers fumbly, Dave flew through the program’s code. It wasn’t there. It wasn’t there.

He hadn’t included a sarcasm filter.