As he nibbled on his lab-grown food bar, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner silently recounted all he had learned in the past three “days” since he had awoken inside a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin. He organized his thoughts into three categories: outrageous, implausible, and incomprehensible. It was outrageous, for example, that he had been abducted from the life he knew into mandatory labor in a bizarre facility that as near has he could tell, had no exits. It was implausible that the world that he thought he knew to be real had effectively ended in 2012 and that all that remained of human consciousness now ran inside a simulation best spoken of using familiar metaphors rather than technical definitions. It was incomprehensible that from outside the simulation, time was as visible and manipulable as length, width, and depth, and that a fifth dimension was observable.
In his old life as Andrew Culligan, Jeet-G (which is the name he had taken to calling himself thanks to the insistence of his new supervisor that there never was an Andrew Culligan) had viewed the progression of his life and the events he witnessed in serial format, one thing neatly following the last, one step at a time. By his understanding, the future was governed by probability, the past was ruled by certainty, and the thin divide separating them was the inscrutable razor’s edge of the present, where All Things Dwell. All else was either memory or expectation. Phantoms. Imps, sometimes. Jeet-G recalled in his life that never was instances where his memory lied to him. Songs he heard again years later bore new, minor lyrics changes. There in the canteen, eating food as dull and gray as the facility itself, he quietly recited the chorus to Michael Jackson’s 1982 classic hit Billie Jean: “Bille Jean is not my lover; she’s just a girl who says that I am the one, but the kid is not my son.” But, he discovered with some surprise, that his recollection was false, that the lyric is “claims”, not “says” and the notion still sat poorly with him. It was an edit, according to his orientation. There were many thousands of these edits, some great, some small, most of a trifling or petty nature. Some were more serious, more personal. On the second “day” he was informed that when workers like him were culled, in-simulation parents would frequently remember a child that had never existed, and thanks to the incomplete and often hurried nature of the editing process, bits of residue from the cull’s former existence often lingered: a toy that shouldn’t logically exist, oddly framed family photographs, kids’ movies among the VHS collection. Jeet couldn’t help but wonder if James and Ellen Culligan were wrestling with the discomfort of knowing they had a child who was simply no longer a part of the fabric of their world.
Someone entered the cantina. Jeet-G had still yet to acclimate to his new appearance, so everyone else he encountered-and there were surprisingly few others-still looked to him as if they had walked off the set of a cheap 1980s science fiction thriller. The alien creature raised a hand in greeting. “Hey. You must be the new guy. Can I join you?”
The casual greeting made the encounter even more surreal. Jeet-G had carefully listened to his own speech during his downtime and he had been discomfited by what issued from his organs of communication. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t, in point of order, any language he had ever heard uttered before. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even properly uttered. There was a spoken component to it, but maybe a tenth of the meaning was passed by mechanically agitating the surrounding air. The rest of it he found himself unable to place, unaware as he was of the nature of his new physiology and anatomy. Neither was he at all certain what he should call this new “language” he now “spoke”. Nevertheless, speak it he did, and with what he perceived to be a native accent. “Sure. They call me Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I’ve been trying out Jeet-G for short.” He thought about smiling, then realized he was too glum to muster the necessary sentiment. “I’d shake hands, but I have no idea what’s even real anymore, let alone what the custom around here is.”
“I’m Sarah Four One Huber.” She had no discernible secondary sex characteristics as far as Jeet-G could tell. He wondered if telling males from females would be covered later in the orientation. “How are you adjusting?”
“Adjusting? I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to be adjusting to.” He wasn’t sure if he was glum or still alarmed, and his ambivalence was evident.
“What department do they have you in?” She had sat opposite him and was unfolding a modest square of cloth that appeared to be woven from metal thread. “I’m in thoracic anatomy.”
“Mostly I make adjustments to ribcage design, heart structure, lung capacity, that sort of thing. Haven’t you gotten your work assignment yet?”
“No, not yet.” He wondered what she meant by adjustments to anatomy. “Sorry, did you say ‘heart structure’?”
Her voice rose half an octave in excitement, “yeah, after the event, they needed bigger livers for all the extra toxins, and the liver uses a lot of blood.” She held out her hands, extending fingers no bigger around than soda straws to illustrate her point. “So I helped move the heart under the sternum, rotate it, increase valve diameter, alter the shape of the right atrium, and I even helped with the arterial brachiation and the composition of the pericardium.”
Jeet-G returned a blank look. “I don’t get it.”
She slowed the pace of her speaking, now concerned that he was either a little dimwitted or just knew little about human anatomy. “The pericardium is the membrane around the heart. It…”
He hid his irritation at the condescension well enough that she didn’t catch on. “No, I mean, I don’t get it as in I’m not sure what you mean when you say you adjusted anatomy. Do you… I mean, how do you…” He was confused as to the extent of his confusion.
“Oh, you haven’t gotten to that part of the orientation yet. Oh, I’m sorry. I understand why you must be puzzled.” She leaned over conspiratorially. “We edit them.”
“You edit who?”
“Them. The humans.” She cocked her head a bit. “Well, I suppose strictly speaking, ‘we’ humans, since they’re just us, only we’re out here and they’re in there. Also, they’ve been edited a lot.” She took a bite of the dull food. “I mean, we have too. These bodies have been tailored for this environment just like theirs have.”
He looked down at his still-bizarre appearance. “We have?”
She sat up in surprise. “Of course we have. Low gravity, therefore thin limbs and severely reduced physical strength. Clean environment, therefore small kidneys. Low fat diet, so not much liver. Short digestive tract. Low light, big eyes with dilated pupils. You know, all made to fit the environment.”
That almost made sense to him, but he still had no idea where exactly he was. She said it was a low gravity environment, so he began to suspect he was on some space station somewhere.
The truth, as he would eventually discover, was far more bizarre.
“Greetings Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. I see you have met one of your co-workers. Sarah Four One Huber is also a new arrival, much like yourself. She has proven invaluable in arresting the septicemia problem we had in 2013.”
“You said she’s a ‘new arrival’ so how can she have fixed a problem in 2013? Correct my math if I’m wrong, but that was four years ago.”
“You aren’t wrong.” The voice still seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. “But I want you to remember what we said about the nature of time.” Jeet-G sighed as deeply as he was able with his tiny new lungs. “Time proceeds here at the same pace it does there, but we are able to witness and access the entire sweep of history—past, present, and future—on the other side of the veil. We’re in 2017 just like they are. The main difference is that we can see the events of 1912, of 23,000 BC, of the dawn of life on Earth if it suits the mission’s needs. Here, take a look.” Jeet-G rocked back on his brittle heels as a gently-spinning globe filled the orientation room. “This is the Earth about four million years ago.”
Jeet-G caught his balance. “You mean it’s a, uh, a map. A globe. Or maybe a really good hologram. It’s not the Earth.”
“No, it’s the actual planet. It’s in read-only right now, so you can’t alter anything, but that’s the real deal.”
Jeet-G reached out to touch the sphere, but his hand passed right through it. “Come on, it’s a projection. It’s not there.”
“How do you know you’re not the projection?”
“If it helps, think of it this way: relative to each other, you’re both projections.”
“That doesn’t help.”
The disembodied voice sounded amused. “You know how like in Star Trek they sometimes talk about the Enterprise being out of phase with a part of subspace or something like that?”
“I’m more of a Star Wars guy. I watched a season or two of Deep Space Nine during the original run, but I never really got into it.”
“Funny you should mention that. Rene Auberjonois is an edit.”
“He died in 1981. Pancreatic cancer. Where The Buffalo Roam was his last performance, and we brought him back.”
“You do that? Bring people back to life? Why?”
“Second-string actors, mostly. Sometimes politicians. Rob Ford is one we’re working on right now. Our most infamous edit is Nelson Mandela. In fact, that one’s what the inhabitants have named our visible edits after.”
“Most of what we do is ordinary monitoring. But there’s a threat somewhere on the other side of the veil. We’re not sure what it is or where’s it’s from, but here, look at this.” The projection of the planet shimmered as the surface rapidly shifted to form more recognizable continental forms. The changes then slowed, and within the course of what Jeet-G estimated to be a couple of weeks, cities went dark, huge patches of land went from green and fertile to scorched and glowing. Lakes dried, satellites fell from orbit, and the axial tilt of the planet went what Jeet-G could only describe to himself as “all wobbly.”
“What the shit is that?”
“That the shit, is what we’re trying desperately to stop. That is why we planted you in there, that is why we harvested you, and that is why we need your help. What you see before you is a mere three years from now. Unless we can stop it.”
Jeet-G was a-gawp. “How? What? What is that? How do we stop it?”
“That’s part of the problem. We think it’s probably a rogue human on the other side of the veil, someone who’s figured out the nature of things and is either intentionally or accidentally messing with the controls that only we here on this side are supposed to have.” The voice grew melancholy, afraid. “But we don’t know for sure. And we barely even know where to look. We’re still trying to narrow it down by continent. We think it’s probably somewhere in North America, since most of our hits are in the United States.”
“People reporting systematic memory lapses, errors in recollection, that sort of thing.”
“If you want to find someone robust against our editing work, you have to introduce a wide variety of edits, some blatant like the reshoot we did of the Zapruder Film, some subtle like we did for the Volkswagen logo. The big, blatant, obvious ones are to gather a large sample batch, and the smaller ones are to refine our inquiry.”
“I… I still don’t follow. You make changes to the fabric of reality with these edits just to see who notices? How can anyone notice? What you’re describing is impossible.”
“Memory is not reality. Remember that we are experiencing time the same as they are. We can change their entire history, move continents around, change the very structure of their brains even. It will have always been the case, for example, that the Coca-Cola logo has had a small hyphen between the words, but for some, the memory of a tilde will remain. That memory-mismatch frisson shows up here.” A HUD appeared near the globe, much like ones he recalled from the real-time strategy video games he enjoyed. “We track it, try new edits to cull the sample numbers. Eventually we’ll find the culprit and eliminate him from the timeline.”
“That’s the hope anyway. If the Earth goes, we’re all out of a job. Plus, most of us, perhaps all of us still have pretty strong sentimental ties to the reality of our birth. You can even visit the woman who was your wife if you’re so inclined. Not that I’d recommend it, of course.”
Jeet-G folded his arms and snorted. “This is bullshit. Exceptionally well-crafted bullshit, but bullshit all the same.”
“John Three Three Seven Gardner, it does not matter if it is bullshit. You have been drafted to perform a task. If you prove unwilling or unable to perform this task, you will be replaced with someone who can and will.”
“Really? So you can send me back?”
“So then what would happen to me?”
The voice was silent for several seconds. As Jeet-G began to wonder if it had left, it abruptly returned. “We lack the resources to support unemployed laborers. You would be recycled.” Jeet-G swallowed the lump that formed in his narrow throat. “That’s enough of that talk for now. Let us return to the test editing procedure. Please be seated at the terminal.”
Jeet-G dutifully sat on the rigid surface, silently pledging to take a modicum of revenge for his abduction.