Randall MacKenzie stared into the shower head, watching the water catch the light in a radiant pattern like a distant star. This was his time, the morning: a slightly longer shower, a few extra minutes checking the news, then a commute in which he could listen to whatever he wanted to on the radio.
After that, seven hours of job awaited him. Like most Americans, Randall had no hope for his days: eighty percent of his time went to what he saw as political-style activities, like being seen in the right meetings, talking to all the people on his team so he was popular, and filling out paperwork that made his presence convenient for The System, whatever that was.
Getting in the office he found himself breathless, as if he had struggled with a hostile enemy with a sword and not merely traffic on the interstate. At the water cooler, Manuel Guildensterno called out to him, “Hey, Rand, you going to be at the 10:30 meeting?”
“Yep,” said Rand.
Guildensterno and his group nodded and backed away, with a few twitters. Rand wondered what that was about, but instead got to work clearing out the emails that had come in overnight. Most required a few words in response but he always put them in pleasant, friendly messages.
At the appointed time, he wheeled into the conference room… and stopped dead, because the meeting was in full session. Guildensterno and his workplace buddy, Rosencranopoulos, pointed to their watches with dramatic gestures. Eyes tracked him like a hunter watching quarry.
“Of all the things I have learned in business,” said the boss, Dave “Red” Cole, “the most important is punctuality.” The room collapsed in laughter.
Rand sat down and began taking notes. Of course he knew the meeting was at ten, not ten-thirty; somehow, in the blur of morning activity, he had missed it. This trivial thing would nonetheless be what was remembered at his next quarterly review, and everyone knew that jobs were hard to find these days…
Before he knew it, it was afternoon. While Guildensterno and the others joked around the water cooler, Rand had answered a full spate of emails and processed his share of orders. He was almost out the door when —
“McKenzie, I need you to handle this,” said Cole, poking a heap of paper inside the office door while talking on the phone. The clock read 4:58. Sighing, Rand took it on, and was only heading out the door at 8:30. He knew that if he failed to put in ten-hour days, someone else would come along who would, and since the work was not hard, that person would replace him.
Leaving the parking lot, he saw only one other car, and got on the lone country road to his house in the exurbs. As he passed the last vestiges of the city, his heart rate dropped and he turned on the radio. Singing along with Willie Nelson, Rand at last felt somewhat comfortable.
The day had been stressful. It occurred to him that he felt like going into combat, maybe one of those brave fellows in military armor parachuting from planes over hostile territory, any time he went to work — or the grocery store, post office, Starbucks, whatever. He felt safe at home, until he worried about the mortgage.
As he rounded the top of a final hill, his car dropped dead and coasted to a stop, Rand steering with the nervous agility of someone suddenly awakened. He pulled the parking brake and got out, opened the hood, and stared at the conglomeration of hoses, wires and pipes inside. He could barely see it.
“Thank you,” he said unconsciously, as a light illuminated the engine compartment. Then he stopped. The light was coming from behind him. He turned around and —
…sensations of coldness, then a warm bath, finally a gasp of air that revitalized him.
He looked up from some kind of gurney at alien faces. Their skin was bluish-green, their eyes large and blue, and their hands had five long fingers with what seemed like pads on the end. He struggled and hands reached out to him, oddly comforting in their softness.
“We have taken you from Earth for study,” said a gentle voice, sounding to him like a blues guitar played through arctic ice. He looked up at the face above him, earnest yet devoid of emotion.
“You have suffered long on your home planet,” said another. “This is but a stage… all species must go through… we have a gift for you that may help this.”
They showed him something called a Vthrangr. It fit over his head like a helmet with wings, and he could see projected onto his eyes some kind of readout which changed instantly, converting unknown symbols into English text.
“You have two weeks to use it,” said the first voice, and then Rand passed out.
He woke up in his garage, the car parked and radio still going. He turned it off. What a strange dream! He grabbed his briefcase to go inside, and then by chance looked into the back seat.
The Vthrangr was there, emanating a faint glow.
Later that night, after a hasty dinner of hot dogs with microwave waffles, Rand went into his office at the rear of the house. This room had been a closet, but once they built the addition downstairs, storage was no longer so pressing, and so he had adopted it, with radio and desk and lamp, looking out a single window at the entropic streets of the empty suburbs.
He smuggled the Vthrangr to his office wrapped under an old towel, complaining of grease…
There he shut the door, and then pressed against it to assure himself it was firmly sealed. He looked at the object, which seemed like a futuristic space plane designed to rest on the head. He put it on his extra chair, and heaped clothing and papers upon it.
But then, something happened that he could not have foreseen: his curiosity got the better of him. He cleared aside the clutter, and took out the helmet, setting it on his head after a moment of trepidation.
The symbols morphed between odd geometries and suddenly became English. DARWINIAN COMMAND, read the readout.
What have I gotten myself into? Rand wondered. He put the helmet back in his hiding place and, uncharacteristically, locked the door behind him when he left.
The next day he got up late. It was Saturday. He found a note from the wife which said she was at the gym. The kids were at his parents’ house. He was alone. Showering, he tried to figure out what to do with himself. His regular days were plotted out, basically him reacting to what others demanded. Now he had this abyss of time he had to plan himself.
Mid-day found him at the grocery store. A woman ran her shopping cart into his leg, with no reason other than that she did not look around the corner of the aisle. He caught the triumphant look as she walked away after a thin apology. She thinks she got one over on me, he thought.
The woman at the checkout looked at him as if he were blight. The groceries cost more than he thought, and he was hungry. Driving home, he waited as the traffic swelled because someone was in the wrong lane, and held up everyone behind them while waiting to get into the right turn lane.
Back at the house, he made a sandwich, only to realize that he had forgotten cheese. He looked in the drawer in the refrigerator: nothing left but fragments. He heaped them on his sandwich and ate it, then went to the door as his wife and children came home.
The wife went quickly to the shower. Rand had always suspected that she was having an affair with her personal trainer, and this seemed to him today to clinch that fact. The kids were bloated with sugar and wanted to watch television. He told them no and to go outside instead.
“But Mom lets us!” said a small voice.
Rand realized his children had turned against him. For insisting on some remnant of sanity, he had become the bad guy. His wife came downstairs in an exercise outfit, then kissed the kids (not him) and went out to the store. Rand threw out the rest of his failed sandwich, and went to his office while the kids raged around the television.
He had never realized how much the door shutting was his one act of power in this life. He could seal out the insanity and have a few moments of clarity of thought in here, this room smaller than a bathroom, all that was left of the house that was a place for him.
His face burned as he considered it all. The humiliating job, the disrespectful wife, the lawless children. He dug aside the clothes and papers, and after a deep breath, put on the Vthrangr. He saw in a red glow a map of the world, stretching out from his location.
On the left side of his vision were check boxes, and as he watched the text formed English terms: Intelligence, Conscientiousness, Alertness. On the right was a readout that suggested a number in the range of seven billion. Tentatively, he gestured with his mind, and the first check box lit up.
Across the map, lights formed showing him locations across the globe. He estimated a few hundred million, and the right side readout confirmed it by showing him a number: 412 million.
He flicked his eyes back to the left column. Above the checkboxes, malevolent like a fire alarm, a negativity symbol stood out in red. He flicked it with his mind. The right column immediately showed him 6.9 billion. He realized he had selected for everyone without the ability he had indicated on the left.
But what did it do? He took the helmet off and contemplated it. It seemed so small, and yet he could already tell that it far exceeded any Earth technology. He put it back on.
This time, he went down the left side, checking off boxes. They modified each other, and when he was done, the number totaled only about six million. He used his mental gesture to pan out, and saw the whole globe, a vast network of people with only a few lighted dots among them for those who qualified.
He put the helmet back on the chair. Downstairs the children were arguing; he opened the door and could hear his wife having a teary conversation with someone on her phone behind her closed door. He dumped his drink and pressed the glass against the door. “This is more than an affair,” she was saying. “I love you, Dominic…”
Rand went downstairs and turned off the television. “Go outside,” he said, and pushed them out before he could hear the spoiled voices and angry recriminations. He was past caring.
Back upstairs, he put on the helmet again. He knew what he should do. But he could not do it. On the lower right, a button glowed which said in English simply APPLY.
Sunday was much the same, slurping back beers on the sofa while some program he did not care about played out on the screen. His wife called him a couch potato. His kids, who seemed to take no notice of him when he was not telling them what they could not do, went to a neighbor’s house.
The door slammed. His wife had been teary that morning, not even bothering to hide it. He knew her friends joked about alimony as “my ship coming in,” and he felt divorce on the horizon. Maybe she would take the brats, who seemed to have inherited her personality.
That week rolled by, and the next, with nothing but humiliations. Guildensterno presented a proposal which was obviously wrong but as so easy that everyone in the room applauded it. Cole looked at him, but Rand could not applaud. In five years, they would find out, he thought.
He was not entirely surprised to find a pink slip at his desk at the end of the second week. He went to the copy room, dumped sealed reams of paper from a box, and took it back to his desk and casually tossed all of his personal effects into it. He thought about saying goodbye to someone, but who? No one cared.
Coming in the back door, he was equally unsurprised to find a note written on pink paper. His wife was leaving. He could have written this himself since it was nothing but clichés tied together by a common thread: her need. Everything they had done was sacrificed for this vision.
Luckily she took the kids. He wanted to love them, but they were so unlike him — and thoughtless, dramatic like her — that he felt they were aliens. No offense to those who had granted him the Vthrangr, he thought. Speaking of that, he had unfinished business.
Upstairs he set his beer aside and put on the helmet. Again he checked the boxes, but this time, he checked every single one from the outset. The number hovered in the high five million range. It seemed that some of the people who had every trait on the left, a list of things he thought essential for every person, had declined.
Probably suicide, he thought.
Taking a deep breath, he motioned his mind toward the APPLY button. He knew he was committing a crime which would dwarf anything Hitler and Stalin had ever done, and would put him on par with the most sadistic emperors of the past. And yet, he had nothing to lose. He gestured and the button glowed.
Rand passed into deep sleep. I wonder if I will survive, he thought. He knew he had the potential for those traits, but always figured he was average, at least until he got a full-time job and saw how broken every other person seemed to be. And even his wife, so attractive in her youth, had fallen short.
He woke up on the floor. The helmet had vanished, probably a property of its two-week limit. Or maybe that he had used it. Either way, Rand struggled to his feet, and went out into the world.
The street was silent. Cars sat on the road, motors running. In each he saw a human being, face thrown back and eyes wide open but blank, blood drying around the nose and ears. In many yards there were clumps of small bodies. Rand recalled reading that the personality of a person was determined at five years old, and some of these were that young.
Walking the streets of the city, he saw more of the same. People slumped at desks, over bicycles, and across benches. All had the same fixed stare as if they had seen into an abyss and then been consumed by it. He walked downtown, past a church empty of life and a few bars where the music played on over the corpses of its listeners.
He did not think about his wife or children. At all.
On the third day, Rand met another living person. A well-dressed gentleman exited an apartment building, trailed by another man wearing exercise gear. They almost cried out upon seeing one another.
“What happened?” asked Rand.
The man in exercise gear answered. “All the empty people died. The self-important, the idiots, the power-hungry. What is left is just real people, good people. I feel like crying, but then laughing, because we have a start again.”
The survivors met in a large building downtown. They put together their knowledge, and got on the shortwave radio to confirm it. Six million people remained on Earth; the others had dropped dead. A vast purge had occurred.
From every report, the people remaining were well-rounded. They were not necessarily successful, but all had a few things in common. They were intelligent, had moral instincts toward the good, and enjoyed life more than seeing it as a means to an end of things like power, wealth, popularity and politics.
Humanity had been pared down. The people who made life miserable had been culled. The people who gave back to life remained. Rand felt a momentary sadness for those lost, but then shrugged it off. Life would be better this way. And now that the species was thinned, it might evolve.
As the sun set on the first realization of his new life, Rand walked into the light, smiling and for once, hopeful.