The garden of earthly delights


Gregor awoke to a cool wind blowing over him. Dew had settled on his skin and he felt a chill from within, mostly related to the tumult in his mind. How had he arrived here? And why could he remember nothing but being here and a few moments from the day before?

He tugged himself under the large fronds of a nearby tropical plant. Animals noises occurred far away, sounding like small creatures. Hunger drove him away from his shelter and he found himself removing large yellow fruits from a nearby tree. They satisfied his hunger, both sweet and starchy, but giving him energy as if he had eaten a meat-based meal. Puzzled, he wandered on.

In one clearing he found a plant on which every other branch was dead and devoid of leaves or twigs. He pulled on one and it came away in his hand. Remembering a long-ago lesson he plugged it into a thick swathe of dry bark and began turning it. As if it were coated like easy strike matches, it burst into flame rapidly. He added more dry wood — it seemed oddly convenient in its scattering nearby — and he soon had a blazing fire.

While the coals smouldered, he wandered among the trees and discovered that this strange place possessed a number of caves, each about the right size for a person or two to hide out or hole up for the night. Some even had natural flues. Cupping coals in a wet leaf, he transferred his fire to one, dumping dry grass and sticks onto the embers to create a roaring blaze. Hungry, he tried another sort of fruit. The same result: sweet like juice, but filling like a meal of meat and potatoes.

He must have drifted off at that point, and slipped into dream. He woke to the sensation of a hand on his shoulder, but could see no one around. Perplexed, he tried to rise, but felt himself forced down. Then strange bright lines appeared across his perspective, and the verdant Eden melted away. He found himself in a chair, holding a pair of headphones with strange spoon-like appendages for his temples.

Two guys in uniform stood on either side of him. “Another one, lost in the loop,” said one. “Come on, fella, we’ve got to get you out of here.”

“Who am I?” he said, bewildered.

The other shrugged. “Sim-amnesia,” he said. “Keep it under your hat, but we get a few cases every month. It’s the interface. It can heat up and scramble you a little bit. Dave will pull your record and figure out who you are.”

And so it was Gregor found himself holding his identity card, reading his file on a computer screen. He was an Actuarial Lifestyle Estimator, it said. He read his home address which seemed oddly numeric, with no street name, and his work location. Then they clapped him on the shoulder and put him in the elevator.

When the bell clanged downstairs he stepped out into the world. There he paused. The street thronged with cars under an unbroken block of skyscraper-buildings forty stories high, each filled with units of equal size for business or dwelling. Every block had a number, and since the buildings filled a block, that designated the units within it. Addresses took the form of three groups of numbers: neighborhood and region, building and unit. He almost fainted when he saw that his unit was numbered in the ten thousands.

Gregor found a public terminal and logged on with skills he could not remember acquiring. There he accessed the People’s Dictionary and saw that the entire planet was covered in blocks like these, all filled with people. Last names had been abolished and people used their work description instead. Education had taken over any other form of qualification, and Gregor realized he had been training since before he could walk for this role. Crime was near non-existent and deviation from the norm impossible, except in the simulators like the one from which he had come. There people could be anyone they wanted to be, forever unique and amazing in their own way.

Once this planet had been wracked by warfare, he read. That had been conquered by equality and managerial science. Now people were assessed only by how far they went in education, which had been adjusted to reward number of hours spent on it instead of natural skills, and everyone earned almost the same amount of money. Each person got a cube at work and a cube to live in, complete with its own air filter, climate control and algal garden to produce food. No one wanted for anything. Peace and prosperity reigned. The average work-week was sixty hours.

A line formed behind him, so Gregor logged off. The day had ended and the sun was setting. He looked up to see the slanted rays of daysend cutting down the avenue, lighting infinite blocks of uncountable buildings, each filled with people acting out their function and thinking of nothing else. A scent came to him, that of a fire in a jungle. Bereft of anything but this moment, he turned and began the long walk to his new home.

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