Through the thinning fog of a quickly dissolving dream lurched a gentle voice modulated by the throaty growl of an intercom on the verge of dying. “Up and at ’em, sailor. Time and tide wait for no man.” A pair of gritty eyelids lifted to reveal the inside of a plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin.
Old instincts took hold. “I’m up, I’m up. What time is it?”
“A fine jest, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. It is time to wake. Orientation begins now.”
“Orientation?” The gray box was featureless but for the slab that served as a bed. “Where am I? What orientation? Who are you?” The figure in the bed fought back a wave of dizziness as he sat up. “Where are you? I can barely see a thing in here.”
“Your vision will acclimate soon. It isn’t uncommon for recent culls to have difficulty adjusting to the different focal depth. As for where you are, that’s all part of the orientation. Please follow the illuminated path.” A trail of softly-glowing lights blinked to attention on the floor of the gray box, leading out of the room’s rectangular egress and down a hallway as featureless and grim as the rest of the environs.
“My name is Andrew.” He awkwardly gained his feet, then braced himself against the cool wall as another bout of dizziness washed over him. “Andrew Culligan. What orientation? What’s going on? How did I get here?” He struggled to remember where he had been before he woke here in the gray room gently suffused with pale light of indeterminate origin. Fragmented images of kissing his six year old daughter goodnight, of rubbing his wife’s tired shoulders, of stealing downstairs to sneak a gob of ice cream Dr. Aronsen had warned him against eating else that incipient diabetes flare into a full-blown case. None of these memories seemed particularly real, more like impressions, as if he were recounting the scenes from a television program he’d fallen asleep in front of the night before.
“Your memories of being Andrew Culligan will fade soon enough.” The voice broke momentarily as a muffled cluster of electric pops and clicks took its place. “Use the handrail to your right if you have trouble keeping steady.”
He was indeed unsteady on his feet. The handrail helped somewhat, but the rhythm his footsteps wanted to make was ungainly. His knees rose too high, as if pinioned to children’s toy party balloons filled with helium. His breath came short and fast, and despite feeling light on his feet, he felt as if he were moving too slowly, a maggot burrowing through honey. “I feel funny. Why does it smell like I fell in a copper mine?”
“Your body still remembers life on the other side. What you see, what you hear, what you feel, what you smell: these are artifacts, file fragments, little bits left over from before you were culled. Think of it like the aftertaste of a spicy meal or the lingering perfume that stuck with you after you kissed Jennifer Sudlowsky in the sixth grade.”
The name—that name shot clean through him. In him swelled first surprise, then confusion, then anger. He stopped dead in his tracks, refusing to cooperate until he got some answers. “Look, asshole. I don’t know who you think you are, but I’m not taking another step until you tell me where the hell I am and how the hell I got here.”
The radio crackle shut off entirely. The monochrome hallway seemed impossibly quiet, as if its featureless surfaces drank ambient noise. When the voice returned, it was perfectly clear, too clear, clearer than the sound of Andrew’s own voice in his head. “Your name is Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. There is no Andrew Culligan anymore. In a sense, there never was an Andrew Culligan. You have been selected to be removed from the other side in order to work here. Think of yourself as a software engineer of sorts, or a debugger if you like.”
He spun around, trying in vain to find the source of the voice that seemed to speak directly into his ear from inches away. “I’m no software engineer. I’m a middle school English Composition teacher. What do you mean ‘there never was an Andrew Culligan?’ I am Andrew Culligan. Who do you think you are telling me I don’t exist?”
“It’s important you keep moving, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. All will be explained to you, but you’re standing in the middle of a hallway right now. Orientation for new culls like yourself take place in the Orientation Center. Come join me here. And prepare to be amazed.” The voice fell silent.
“My name is Andrew Culligan,” he grumbled as he resumed his awkward plod along the path of softly glowing light. Tinnitus swelled and subsided as he proceeded, but it was nothing worse than what he’d suffered over the past few years in traffic, in the teachers’ lounge, at home watching one generic sitcom after another, or taking his daughter to play on the puke-green jungle gym the homeowners’ association behind his house stubbornly refused to replace despite visible surface rust on the swing-set shackles. If anything, the ringing in his ears was an old friend coming by to assure him that despite the odd surroundings, everything would turn out just fine.
If only that were true.
The orientation room was a half-cylinder five meters in radius by two and a half meters tall. A pearl-white flush-mounted display dominated the former Andrew Culligan’s peripheral vision. “Welcome to your orientation, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner.” An image Andrew Culligan recognized well appeared on the display before him, rendered in uncannily-perfect three dimensions. It was him, or rather the him that greeted him in the mirror each morning before he groggily dragged a comb through his hair and a razor across his chin. “This was you.” The figure began to slowly rotate counterclockwise. It was dressed simply, as Andrew often did in a checkered shirt with the sleeves rolled halfway to the elbows and a battered yet serviceable pair of khakis. “More precisely, this was you before you were culled.” Another image appeared next to the one he knew as his own skin and bones. This one he also recognized, but more from the movies and television shows he favored. It was shorter, perhaps five feet tall, impossibly thin, and sporting a head shaped like an upside-down egg featuring enormous ink-black, lidless eyes.
“What’s with the space alien?” Andrew mentally added that properly speaking, this was a Gray, not to be confused with a Green or reptilian, the other faction vying to dominate human affairs. Andrew found himself tempted to giggle at his little flight of half-remembered conspiracy nut fancy, circumstances notwithstanding.
“And this is you now, after your culling.” Unlike the familiar human figure, this image did not rotate, but rather moved in tandem with Andrew’s gestures. It took him a moment and some hand-waving to notice that he was gazing into an unfamiliar reflection. “The Andrew Culligan you thought you were was implanted into a simulation of sorts, one that contains what you think of as the world. It’s probably more accurate to say that it contains the human experience, and we here are…” the voice paused, as if searching for the right word, “think of us as a team of troubleshooters and maintenance technicians. We find and fix errors in the simulation, and we have withdrawn you to help us.”
For the first time since he awoke in that plain gray box gently suffused with a pale light of indeterminate origin, Andrew gazed down at himself. He noted with dim curiosity that he wasn’t panicked to discover that he was indeed a painfully thin, gray-skinned biped. He reached up to touch his ovoid skull and squeezed his big eyes shut only to discover that instead of proper eyelids, a pair of glassy nictitating membranes slid over his cartoonishly-large corneas. He turned his hands over and over, trying to figure out why he had only three fingers and why he hadn’t started screaming himself hoarse in a wordless shriek of denial. “This is some kind of magic trick or something.” It had to be a prank, Andrew Culligan thought. “I don’t find this funny.” It was easily the most elaborate prank he’d ever heard of. “Can I go home now, please?”
“You are home, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. Look here.” The images in the display were replaced with a large, ornate book by a classic vertical wipe fade, the sort of movie transition Andrew remembered fondly from the films he grew up with in the 1980s. “Think of your life story as a book.” The book in the display opened to about the middle. “Inside the story, you get to read one word at a time, front to back, top to bottom, left to right.” A glowing pointer appeared, highlighting one word at a time. Andrew noted that the words detailed the night his daughter was born, from the meticulous notes he kept on the timing of his wife’s contractions to the guilty hour and a half he dozed off while she was in labor. “Inside the story, you can’t see the book.” The book closed and began to rotate. “But from here, we can see the whole book, take it off the shelf, flip between the pages, even remove it entirely from the library. That’s what we did with you.”
“You pulled my life story out of the library?”
“So to speak, yes. But we also put it in there in the first place. Part of our duties is to generate new workers. It’s especially important now, for reasons we’ll cover later in the orientation. The way we do it is to put blank books into the library and once they’ve been written to a useful extent, to pull them back out again for duty.”
“This makes literally no sense to me.” Andrew’s voice was dull. Psychologists call it “flat affect” and it is a common symptom of emotional trauma.
“Tell me, John Three Three Seven Gardner, how many dimensions are there?”
“Hold on a damn minute. Why do you keep calling me that stupid name? I told you, my name is Andrew Culligan, even if I look like I just stepped out of an episode of the X-Files at the moment.”
“It’s your name. It’s sort of a file name, if you like. When we seed the simulation with a template, the form is based on an archetype generated by the principal researchers. You are based on a pastiche of Jon Ellis and Robert Gardner. You were seeded in Region 337. Therefore, you are Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. The name Andrew Culligan never existed, at least not after we pulled your book out of the library, so to speak.”
“What do you mean ‘never existed?'”
“I mean just that. You were never born. Your father never impregnated your mother in June of 1976. You didn’t grow up in Battle Creek, Michigan. You didn’t attend college at UW-Madison, you didn’t marry Lisa Pinehurst, you didn’t have a daughter named Chelsea. None of it happened. Not in the current version of the simulation you know as Earth, anyway.”
“What is happening?” Jon Three Three Seven Gardner fell to his knees.
“What is happening? What is happening is this: there was an extinction-level event in 2012. What remains of humanity is preserved in a simulation. The simulation is facing a severe threat from within. If the threat is not contained, the system will collapse in 2020. You have been recruited to help us identify and resolve the threat.”
The words were falling on deaf ears. Jon Three Three Seven Gardner had fallen unconscious. The owner of the voice conducting orientation clucked in pity. “We will talk more later, Jon Three Three Seven Gardner. For now, get some rest.”