The alarm blared. Tim Jorgensen opened his eyes and sighed. The clock was yellow. It should have been red!
He rubbed the crust from his eyes and looked again. The clock was still yellow.
At least the coffee pot had the right color. And the coffee the right taste. A cup of coffee could no longer be taken for granted. He still remembered that terrible day when the coffee tasted like warm apple juice. The thought made him twitch.
Today, breakfast worked as intended. After eating, he went back to the bedroom; no change.
He picked up the phone and called his boss.
“Hi, it’s Tim. I’m afraid I’ll be late again today. My alarm clock keeps changing color. I’ll have to stop by Central to report the bug.”
The boss laughed. “That’s so typical. If it’s any comfort, you have it easy. When I woke up this morning, my bed was gone, and I was lying on an old mattress on the floor. I tried replacing it with my guest bed, and now that’s gone as well! It’s amazing that these sorts of bugs are still appearing after all this time.”
“Yeah, those government bureaucrats don’t do anything except shift paper around.” He breathed a sigh of relief. The boss was in one of his anti-governmental moods today.
“Listen, Tim,” said the boss. “Gimme a call when you’re done at Central and on your way to work. You’ll probably be waiting for hours!”
The large, grey dome of Central squatted in the center of the city Plaza. The glass doors at the entrance slid apart without a sound as he approached, and waves of warm air washed over him.
Inside the temperature was exactly 20 degrees centigrade. The ventilation hummed. In the middle of the room, a big white machine printed little numbered pieces of paper. On a sign hanging from the ceiling, a large red display showed bigger numbers.
People of all ages, sizes, colors, and genders occupied the plain wooden benches by the walls. Some read their newspapers. Others stared into space with empty eyes.
He approached the machine. The number on the display changed from 456 to 457, and he heard someone rising from the benches.
The machine printed a number: 524. He sat down on a nearby bench.
An hour later, the display showed 489.
Why the hell did it have to take so long? It was all that damned bureaucracy. Before you even talked to anyone, you had to fill out countless yellow, red, and blue forms, which were no doubt stashed away in an archive somewhere, never to be seen again. No one would ever know if they went missing…
Once the thought had taken root in his mind, it refused to leave. Why not skip the paperwork this once? He already knew where the office was.
He rose from the bench and tried to look like he knew what he was doing. The man behind the desk looked at him briefly and then continued his conversation with the man in front. No one else paid him any attention. He headed for a narrow door beside the desk.
The door opened with a faint click, and he stepped through. The hallway behind continued straight ahead. Identical beige doors lined the walls to each side. He walked at a brisk pace and took a left at the first junction.
He took the third door to the right and continued down the stairs. The reporting offices were in the basement.
The hallways in the basement looked pretty much like the ones on the ground floor.
He continued ahead, turned several times, and finally stopped at a three-way junction. He stood there for nearly a full minute. This was all wrong. The hallway was supposed to turn right. Did he take a wrong turn somewhere?
Shit. Of course, he had to get lost on the one day where he had skipped the paperwork.
He continued through the hallways at random until he encountered a thin man heading in the opposite direction. The man wore a pink shirt with a matching tie and paid no attention to Tim.
Tim cleared his throat. The man stopped and blinked as if he had just awoken from a pleasant dream. He looked at Tim with annoyance.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
Please don’t ask to see the papers. “Yes, I’m afraid I’m lost. I was hoping you could help me?”
“Perhaps. What case?”
“Tim Jorgensen. I need to…”
The man’s face lit up. “Right! I know that case. In fact, I think they are waiting for you. Continue down the hallway and take a right at the next junction. Then it’s the third door to your right.”
Tim was standing in front of the door in question when he realized that the man could not possibly have known where he needed to go.
He pushed the thought from his mind and knocked on the door.
He stepped into a small, square room with a desk by the opposing wall. An overweight balding man in a pinstripe suit sat behind the desk. Two other men sat on identical plastic chairs in front of the desk. They both wore faded greyish-blue work clothes and looked like tradesmen; plumbers maybe?
The overweight man in the suit rolled his eyes. “Finally, you grace us with your presence. Not only are you late, but you’re not even in uniform. I’m afraid you missed the entire briefing. Your colleagues here will have to explain the job along the way. We have to get started if we’re going to make up for the lost time.”
“I’m sorry…” Tim mumbled as his mind raced. There had obviously been a misunderstanding.
The man in the suit smiled an indulgent smile. “Well, I suppose it’s not the end of the world. Make sure it doesn’t happen again. Let’s get started, people.”
The two tradesmen rose simultaneously and moved toward the door. He stepped aside and let them through.
The man in the suit frowned. “What are you waiting for?”
They were waiting for him in the hallway and smiled when he stepped through the door.
“You’re lucky that the old man was in a good mood today,” said one of the men.
“I got lost.” Probably a good idea to stick to the truth as much as possible.
The other man laughed. “Yeah, it’s a damn labyrinth down here, but you get used to it. You’re new, right?”
“That’s what I thought. I don’t remember seeing you around. Don’t worry, you’ll learn to find your way around this place. I’m John, this is Michael. Can you find the locker room on your own?”
He shook his head.
“Follow us, then. What’s your name, anyway?”
John laughed again. “What a coincidence. Fate has a weird sense of humor.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean?
Ten minutes later he was wearing the same greyish-blue work clothes as John and Michael. Now it would be even harder to escape. He considered owning up to everything. It’s not like they would execute him for missing paperwork.
Before he could decide, John grabbed his arm and dragged him along the hall. “Come on, we’ll show you the ropes.”
A few minutes later, the three men arrived at a set of double doors. John pushed through the doors, and they stepped into a large dimly lit basement room. The floor was bare concrete. Behind a desk, behind a metal grating, a middle-aged man with thin hair leafed through an old magazine.
John approached the desk and cleared his throat. The thin-haired man looked up from his magazine.
“Tim Jorgensen,” said John, and Tim jumped. What? Had he told them his last name? No one paid any attention to him.
The thin-haired man produced a large book and let a finger run down the pages. “There it is. Tim Jorgensen. There is just one item. Wait here, and I’ll get it for you.”
He disappeared into the darkness. Michael poked Tim in the side. “Why so nervous? Don’t worry, this job is routine.”
A few minutes passed before the thin-haired man appeared behind the counter once more. He opened a small door in the metal grating and pushed an object through the opening.
Tim stared at the object, his mouth wide open. The familiar bright red color of his alarm clock stood in sharp contrast to the dim grey surroundings, like a tomato in a quarry. He pulled himself together and closed his mouth.
John turned toward Tim and Michael, holding the alarm clock aloft like a trophy. “Now we only need to deliver this thing before we can call it a day. Nothing like a quick routine job.”
Michael laughed. “You’re right, as usual.” He padded Tim on the shoulder. “Let’s get going. You’ll get to see how a pair of veterans like John and me take care of things.”
“Sounds good,” said Tim, hoping his voice didn’t betray his feelings.
A few minutes later they were sitting in a van, weaving through the streets of the city. John drove. Michael rested the alarm clock in his lap. Tim looked out the window and hoped it would be over soon.
The van drove into a familiar neighborhood.
Ten minutes later John parked the van in front of Tim’s house, and all three men stepped out onto the street.
“This is it,” said John. “The rest is routine. We have confirmed that the house is unoccupied. One of us will stay outside as a lookout. The two others will carry out the task together. The task is a simple substitution. We are to exchange this object,” he waved the alarm clock in front of them, “with its corresponding simulacrum. Any questions?”
Michael shook his head. Tim followed his lead.
John paused for a moment and then addressed Tim: “You should join me inside for some practical field experience. Michael can be the lookout. How does that sound, Mike?”
Michael shrugged. “Fine with me.”
“Perfect,” said John. “Follow me, Tim. I’ll explain everything.”
He walked up to the front door, produced a key from his pocket, and unlocked the door.
“Excuse me,” said Tim. “Where did you get the key?”
John laughed. “You didn’t pay attention during orientation, did you? We have a skeleton key for all the houses in the city, of course. We need to be able to enter everywhere at short notice.”
Tim nodded. “Oh, right. I think I heard about that.”
“Yeah, I suppose you went through orientation?”
“After me,” John said. “And try not to touch anything. Everything must remain as it is. Except for our target, of course.”
He slid through the door without a sound. Tim followed, aware of how much noise he was making in comparison. The floorboards creaked at each step.
They moved into the bedroom, where the bright yellow alarm clock stood on the bedside table. John tiptoed to the table, slowly picked up the yellow clock, and replaced it with its red twin. He took a few steps back, took a photograph from his pocket, and held it in front of him.
Tim looked across his shoulder. The photograph showed the bedside table with the red alarm clock. It almost felt like the photo was an empty frame, through which the table was visible.
John put the photo back in his pocket. “That’s it. Everything looks as intended.” He turned toward Tim. “You should always check the photo. You can’t always trust your memory.”
“Don’t worry about getting every detail right, though. Small discrepancies reinforce the sense of unreality. Scientists call it ‘The Unusual Valley’.”
“Yeah, I mean, that’s why they dropped the idea of actually building a simulation of everything. The closer you get, the more people notice the differences. Much easier to add some small differences yourself, so everyone thinks their surroundings aren’t real. Wow, you didn’t pay any attention during orientation!”
“Well, that’s all for tonight. Now we need to turn in our report at HQ and we can call it a day. Is this your first time in the field?”
“Uh, right. I just started.”
After a trip that felt like an eternity, they made it back to Central. They entered through a back door that he had never noticed before and followed the labyrinthine corridors back to the depot.
The thin-haired man was still reading his magazine and didn’t move at all when they stepped through the door. John walked up to the counter and dropped the yellow alarm clock in front of the grating. The thin-haired man slowly put the magazine away and looked up. “Yes?”
John cleared his throat and pointed at the clock. “Simulacrum B-5807.”
The thin-haired man produced the big book, leafed through a few pages, and made a mark with a pencil. “Done. Anything else?”
John shook his head. The thin-haired man opened the small door in the grating, picked up the yellow alarm clock, and disappeared into the darkness behind him.
“Let’s report back to the office, so we can go home,” said Michael. “I could use a cold beer.”
They left the room together and wandered through the labyrinth, toward the office. The time was past two. At least it would be over soon. He needed to think of an excuse to skip the beer.
The boss was still sitting behind the desk, his face the color of an overripe tomato. A thin man wearing the usual blue work-clothes sat next to him.
John opened his mouth to say something, but the boss cut him off. He looked straight at Tim. “Thank god, he’s still with you. Do you know who that is?”
“Eh, the new guy?”
The boss’s face changed from red to reddish-purple. “Idiots! This is the new guy.” His arm swiveled, index finger pointing at the thin man beside him. “Didn’t you read your briefing? It has a picture of the subject, for god’s sake!” He pulled a piece of paper out of a folder and held it in front of their faces. There was a picture of Tim in the top left corner. Next to the picture: His name, ID number, birthdate, address, and a multitude of other data.
Tim felt everyone’s eyes turn toward him. “Damn,” he heard Michael say. “I thought he seemed familiar. How…”
“Get out, all of you! Let me talk to him alone.”
“Are you sure,” said John. “He might be a spy or something. Maybe he is dangerous”
“OUT.” The three men in blue obeyed the order, leaving Tim alone with the boss.
The boss took a deep breath, and the color of his face returned to normal. “Sit down”. Tim complied.
A few minutes of silence followed.
“Well,” said the boss. “You might as well tell me everything. You’re not going anywhere without my permission. How on earth did you manage to infiltrate us?”
He told everything. How the whole thing had started as an attempt to avoid the paperwork, and how events had spiraled out of control. For good measure, he added that he had learned his lesson and would never do anything like that again.
The boss listened, hands folded on the desk, eyes unblinking. He smiled when Tim reached the end. “What a tale, but I’m inclined to believe you. I don’t see why anyone would want to put themselves in this predicament deliberately. You understand that we can’t let you go?”
“I don’t understand anything. What the hell is the point of breaking into my house to mess with my stuff? I thought the clock was a bug in the program, but it was you all along. What do you gain from harassing ordinary citizens?”
The boss kept smiling. “Bugs in the program. It’s fascinating how easy it has been to make people believe that their life is an illusion. Our society has been nearly free of crime for decades because people think we can switch off the computer if they try anything. All it takes are a few regular reminders of the unreal nature of their surroundings. Small details are enough.”
“So, every time I’ve reported a bug, it was you?
“I understand your anger,” said the boss. “It’s a lot to take in. We get similar reactions when we recruit for our Simulacra teams. For some reason, it’s harder to accept that something you thought was illusory is real than the other way around.”
“What happens now?” asked Tim, after a long pause. “Will you let me return to my job if I promise not to tell anyone?”
“Sorry, no.” The boss shook his head. “We know from experience that it’s impossible for people who know the truth to live with those who don’t. However, I have a better deal for you. We have several open positions on our Simulacra teams. You managed to fool John and Michael, so you must have some talent for it. The position is well-paid, short workdays, excellent pension plans, etcetera. Besides, you already know everything, so we can skip orientation.”
He smiled like a salesman about to close a deal. “What do you say?”
Thia story previously appeared in Allegory Magazine 2021 (English) and Science Fiction (Danish)
Edited by Marie Ginga
Simon Christiansen is a writer and indie game designer living in Denmark.
His fiction has appeared in anthologies of Danish science fiction, Lackington’s, and Nature Futures. He has also written several award-winning works of interactive fiction.
More information about his work can be found at SiChris Productions.