Illustration by Meagan Horres
There is a NASA-esque office in the sky. And there are dials and switches and big levers, and very focused people with the top button of their white button-up shirts undone, and they are looking over papers and looking at their watch sometimes, and pushing up their glasses and sighing under their breath. The room is mostly stainless steel, humming with ringaling!s and clickclickclickclacks and ThatWasn’tTheProposalWeDiscusseds. Cheryl in management likes Elliot, who has had a steady girlfriend since he started working there, but that's beside the point.
In the front of the room, with all the rows of long futuristic stainless steel panel desks facing it, is a big screen. Playing on the screen is something called the RealTime People Gauge (RTPG for short). The RealTime People Gauge is playing 100% of the time. These employees work 100% of the time, if I can even call them employees, and if I can even reference time in relation to the NASA Office In The Sky. If we were to watch the RTPG program at any moment, we would become very confused, and our tiny tiny brains of this Earth would eventually lose interest, and we would start wondering about what we will have for dinner tonight; because the RTPG has no plot, it is not engaging, it is not meant to have a plot and it is not meant to engage. Flashing on the screen, for about 10 seconds at a time (again, referencing this office as attached to any concept of time is tricky business), are scenes. Real time scenes of life going on. At the top right hand corner of the screen is a name attached to each scene-
The scenes appear to depict just anything at all, sometimes depicting a lot of people and sometimes depicting no people — a view of the middle of the ocean, or of a couple quarreling in a different language, a cow giving birth — this show playing on this screen is very weird and we would like to please not look at it anymore thank you very much.
Oliver is excited today. Oliver’s Earth flashed on the RTPG today and he’d only made it up there once before. Today a lot of people are smiling gently at him, patting his shoulder softly when they pass by his rolly chair, raising their coffee cups in silent congratulatory cheers when he makes eye contact with them across the room. I don’t know how to put this gently, and I’ve sat long enough here thinking of how to tell you, so I think I will just come out and tell you, that Oliver’s Earth happens to be the one that we live on. He engineered this one because he thought it could work. At the end of everybody’s life we all have ideas for this or that detail about the world that we think oughta change. Most people let go of that bygone once they are presented with the opportunity to see every being they’ve ever loved or admired collected into one expanse of multiplicitous joy for all of eternity. Oliver did not.
Neither did the rest of the workers in the NASA Office In The Sky. They figured that if they could manage their own version of it all, that with enough tweaking and enough circumstances being ‘guided’ by ‘fate’, they could create a world that made the inhabitants happy. At least more happy, I guess, than they’d been in their own previous living experience. Some people, naturally, don’t realize how much of an undertaking it is. They figure that they’d always enjoyed playing Sims, or maybe they weren’t super religious, or they were relatively anarchist, and boom they’ve wound up in an eternal office job with eternal responsibility, and so they treat their personal world like Rollercoaster Tycoon 4 and make a mess of it and goof off on the clock (again, clock, time, ehh) and scenes from their worlds tend not to show up on the RTPG.
Some people do a really good job, and the people on their world are really happy. Maybe these worldbuilders do realize that their citizens are overall having a nice time, or maybe they don’t at all, and that is where the RTPG comes in.
In the training manual it says that only the “happiest worlds” get featured on the RTPG. Nobody knows who decides what worlds get to be shown.
Some people in the break room have mentioned that they think there is no system to it, that everybody’s worlds are just flashing randomly on the screen and it doesn’t mean anything anyways. The kinds of people who say that are the kinds of people who didn’t help with group projects in grade school, but their name was on the final thing anyways, and they got away with it every time because nobody wanted to make a big fuss. Oliver was not one of those kinds of people. He was the one writing the bulk of the paper, signing everyone’s name, and refraining from the big fuss. Oliver did not like a big fuss. Oliver hoped that his coworkers would not make a big fuss over his appearance on the RTPG today (they got Lance a cake last time he got on, which felt a lot like a big fuss to Oliver), but thankfully, everybody seems to have resigned themselves to these miniature silent sentiments of congratulations.
Cause, see, nobody thought Oliver’s world was going to work. Everybody thought it was the most bizarre and self-destructive tweak that could be made. A lot of people flounce into the office with big ideas of “Less Clouds!” or “More flowers!” or “Clean water everywhere!” but in those worlds people just got really bad sunburns or they had eternal debilitating allergies or they had to build an ark. In Oliver’s world, he decided to tweak love, which always freaks people out when he tells them, because to mess with the chemistry of love you have to send in an extra set of forms and wait for them to come back. But he did.
In Oliver’s world, when you fall in love with somebody, they don’t have to fall in love with you back. Everybody thought that was downright crazy. But, hey, here we are, and sure we might have a lot more sad love songs than happy ones, but today we got on the RTPG, so I guess it isn’t all so bad, and I guess maybe Oliver did a pretty bangup job after all.