Jon Three Three Seven Gardner was growing weary of the word. Everything now was mandatory. Exercise was mandatory. Sleep hours were mandatory. Study time was mandatory. Nutrition was mandatory. Even recreation was mandatory.
It was during post-shift mandatory recreation time with the off-crew that Jeet-G again met Sarah Four One Huber. She was playing something that looked like a cross between backgammon and the game with the stones and the divot-riddled wooden board whose name he could never recall.
“Mancala,” she smiled, her eyes still fixed towards the board.
“I beg your pardon?”
“You were wondering what games this reminded you of. You got backgammon and were wondering about the other one. It’s called mancala, and it originates from Northern Africa.” She moved a black token from one pile to another. “This game you see here is related. We edited it out, but it used to be extremely popular.” Her opponent remained silent.
“How did you…” Jeet-G trailed off, flummoxed.
“Read your mind?” She smiled. “Don’t worry, you can do it too. It’ll come. Just be patient.” She tapped her expansive forehead. “They can do it on the other side of the veil too, even with their reduced prefrontal cortex.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask someone about that.”
Her smile fell. “The reduced brain capacity? Yeah, I wish I knew more. I once looked up the original specs and I couldn’t figure out the reasoning for the changes.”
“I don’t even think I know what they all are. The list of changes, I mean.”
At this, she finally glanced up at him. “dendrite formation seems to be the big one on the micro scale. Neurons form faster and more densely until about age six, and it takes on average about four years longer for myelin sheaths to form. The way I interpret this is that kids are more inquisitive now and childhood lasts longer.” She looked back down at the board studiously. “From a neurological perspective, of course.”
“I’m not sure I understand.” He rifled through a pile of games, hoping to find a deck of cards so he could practice the few sleights he knew. “But from what I recall, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for critical thinking. It’s, what, ten percent smaller now?”
“Yeah. You’re not the only one disappointed that they did that.”
“Really? I was under the impression that we weren’t supposed to harbor rebellious thoughts.” Sarah Four One Huber’s opponent snickered aloud at the remark.
“Heresy” she drawled, “is a matter of deed, not of thought.” She scowled as her opponent moved one of the white pieces according to rules Jeet-G could not discern.
Jeet-G dimly recalled Sunday School lessons and muttered under his breath, “that ain’t no theology I ever heard of.” Louder, he pressed the brain editing further. “So what’s with the new brain stem position and the bigger corpus callosum and all the other sort of macro changes?”
“Beats me. I just do chest stuff. They tell me they need more blood flow to the carotid, that I can do. Beyond that, I can maybe make educated guesses, but that’s all they are: guesses.”
Her gaming partner finally spoke up, “you probably shouldn’t be asking too many questions.”
He was taken aback. “Really? Why’s that?”
“Well, for one it ain’t your department. You’re in pop culture. American pop culture. Logo design, if I’m not mistaken. It ain’t your department, so you ain’t gotta know.” The lecture emerged from a sallow face, droopy with apathy and incuriosity, but bearing no obvious hint of animosity or hostility.
“Yeah, okay. Whatever.” Jeet-G selected an ornate cribbage board and a deck of Tarot cards and sat down for a variant of Solitaire of his own invention.
The word echoed in Jeet-G’s puffball head. Mandatory shifts for a mandatory job completing a mandatory task that he didn’t understand. He had always considered himself somewhere between meager and moderate. Meager looks, moderate intelligence. Meager courage, moderate conscientiousness. The one thing he believed he excelled at was family life. Knowing that his children no longer existed and his wife had never even known about him in the first place was more bitterly frustrating than the knowledge that the human race had gone extinct four and a half years ago. He was therefore resentful to discover that his meager mediocrity was mandatory.
“Partitions need to be as big as they need to be.” Jeet-G was mediocre at math, but he did like a good logic puzzle from time to time. He was therefore able to understand the reasoning behind taking a meager to moderate man and forcing him to work on editing pop culture touchstones. Meager-to-moderate men tend towards obliviousness. Piercing a cloud of mundane inattention requires someone who knows the limits of casual memory. Jeet-G was such a person: dull, but not too stupid; gormless, but not too feebleminded. A stereotypical suburban dad with a 3.1 college GPA and an unremarkable career in low-level tax accounting is the perfect person for finding and lightly adjusting the thin envelope of attention-grabbing but not-too-overt manipulation that would eventually reveal the rogue element threatening the other side of the veil, luck permitting. He had been recruited to help with large-partition tasks. The fact that they still needed to cast wide partitions combined with the rapidly dwindling timetable cast a pall over their efforts that was not lost on him.
Jeet-G’s supervisor was different from him only in the amount of time he had spent on this side of the veil. He also was of the Jon Gardner genome, but was of the one hundred series. Jon One Four Two Gardner. He too was an unexceptional desk worker from Lansing with student loans, a pudgy wife, and an aged, arthritic Labrador Retriever. Jeet-G thought him taciturn and a little irritable, just like himself. Today’s mandatory task was a redesign of the Jeep logo.
“We seem to do a lot of automotive logos. Why do you suppose that is?”
Jon One Four Two Gardner shrugged. “People spend a lot of time in their cars.”
“So we get them with something they see every day?”
“Yeah. They see it, but they don’t notice it. Not closely anyway. Put a little flourish in the crossbar on the F in Ford, split the intersection between V and W, add a little arrow to the Volvo symbol. We want people to notice, but we don’t want them slamming on the brakes in the middle of rush hour.”
“Little changes, eh?” Jeet-G ran his pencil fingers across his basketball head.
“Little changes. One of two hundred series Jon Gardners has a big thing for Tom Hanks, so he messes with Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, the uh, the one with the volleyball…”
“It’s two words now. Cast Away. Jon Two One Eight Gardner decided to just change the name of the film rather than fiddle with the script. No famous lines like ‘life is like a box of chocolates’ or ‘Houston, we have a problem’.”
“So we can change whatever we want so long as it makes a decent-sized partition?”
“No. Didn’t they tell you about the list of prohibited artifacts?”
“No, what’s that?” Jeet-G attempted to scowl, failed when it came to his attention that he lacked the requisite facial muscles, and settled for a short, intemperate puff of air from flared nasal slits.
“Here, let me pull it up. The big ones are Michael Bay, Donald Trump, Scott Baio, and anything related to Doctor Who.”
“Bay is one of ours. We have a few agents on the other side of the veil, producing content to help generate cognitive dissonance. As for Trump, he’s tied to the John Titor phenomenon. Baio is a reserve property, and the three hundred Caroline Parker series is a massive Whovian. She’d get pretty pissed if we messed with that canon.”
“Oh, that makes sense.” It didn’t make sense, but Jeet-G had suffered enough weirdness for the day and was unwilling to press the issue much further.
“Here you go.” Jon One Four Two Gardner displayed a text document featuring rows upon rows of forbidden properties, including individual people, sports franchises, brand names, cities, historical events, and strangely specific errata.
“I don’t get it. What does this stuff have in common? Who wrote this list?”
Jon One Four Two Gardner shrugged as best as he was able. “Some of it is pet projects, some of it is functional edits.” He pointed to one of the entries near the top. “The Bernstein Bears had to be edited twice to make sure we covered our tracks. That one is firmly off-limits now.”
“Cover our tracks?”
“I don’t know the details. Something about one of the project managers or whatever. Part of the veil is two-way, and it has to do with toroidal event horizon interference waves from microsingularities or some Star Trek nerd technobabble like that.”
“Two-way? I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, one of the scientists at CERN or Fermilab or somewhere is named Bernstein and he wanted to hide his name. That, or maybe someone did it on his behalf. I don’t know or care about the details.”
Jeet-G wanted to make sure he heard properly. “Did you say that this Bernstein guy wanted to hide his name?”
“So it sounds like you’re saying we get orders from the other side of the veil.” Jeet-G began to splutter. “How… what… who..?”
“Relax. They’ll cover all that in your Proficiency training. Keep your mind limber for the classes on dimensional threading. It can get confusing.”
Jeet-G dropped the issue to concentrate on his work. He made his first edit that day: a small change to the shape of a popular orange juice logo. He remembered to take a small bit of pride in his work before retiring for his mandatory recreation that evening.