As the white Pontiac’s bumper slammed into Paul, he felt the wind knock out of his chest and his ribs give out. Last night’s alcohol, insomnia and his bad lifestyle had all come together to make his thoughts sluggish. He should have been paying more attention when he crossed the street.
As the car faded from Paul’s vision he was greeted with absolute black - the kind that you knew was there only because of the absence of all light.
‘So, this is what it’s like to die,’ Paul said to himself, his voice echoing. He closed his eyes and settled into the void. Nothing but him, blackness, a walrus and all eternity.
He looked again. There were two walruses now. Both looked perfectly at home; in their natural environment, sitting on a London taxi, Bavarian folk music playing from the speakers. A line of can-can dancers came in from the side. The air was rich with the scent of grilled meat and new car.
Blackness was replaced with geometric shapes and colours. The afterlife exploded in a cacophony of sight, smell and sound.
‘This is what the afterlife is like?’ thought Paul. ‘Man, we were way off the mark.’
He had no idea how long it lasted but just as suddenly as it started, all the madness disappeared and static replaced everything. Everything except the sound of someone screaming: ‘GOD DAMN IT. DAMN IT, DAMN IT!’
The static disappeared and Paul saw he was standing in a metal room. He touched his body to confirm he was still in fact there. He suddenly realised he was dressed in nothing more than a pair of grey baggy boxers.
Not dead though, so still winning in the long run.
He heard a door behind him slide open. As he whipped around he saw a short, grey humanoid with a disproportionately large head. He was wearing what looked to be an expensive silk suit. It was tailored.
Any other day, Paul’s brain would have broken entirely - however, after what he had just seen, a familiar grey alien was a welcome sight. He greeted it cheerfully and stuck out his hand for a shake.
The alien seemed taken back at first, then very pleased. He puffed out his chest and grabbed Paul’s hand to give him a firm, but not too firm, handshake back.
Finally, the grey humanoid spoke. ‘Good to finally meet you, Paul. I’m so happy that my star employee is keen to meet me. I apologise for the malfunction; a technician is sorting it out.’
‘Excuse me? Star employee?’ said Paul.
‘Oh well, you got me. Only employee, and employee implies I pay you but, hey - details.’
Paul stared at the alien stupidly. Now that the madness of the afterlife had died down, it was beginning to dawn on him how crazy the whole situation was.
‘I should explain. You are employee number 000001. You are the first human to meet any of us.’
Paul continued to stare.
The alien seemed puzzled at Paul’s silence but moved along anyway. ‘We ran across your planet and instantly saw its value. Nature has a place for everything. We’re just feeding into your natural tendencies.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Paul said weakly.
The alien looked behind Paul absentmindedly. ‘Think of a goat eating grass. The goat is going to eat grass anyway so why not have it mow a lawn? Put it to use? That’s why we picked you to be the first, Paul. Degrees in computing and data analytics, scrabble champion, city council secretary. You live to sort information. We just made you sort useful things.’
Paul’s stomach dropped out from beneath him. ‘How long have I been here?’
‘About six years,’ the grey-headed being said proudly. ‘It was my idea actually. The trick was to feed you information in a large range of ways, so that you wouldn’t even realise what you were doing. A sudoku puzzle here, a recaptcha there. Such small tasks done hundreds of times a day for years. Anything bigger and we’d just give it to you at work. Your wife was there to keep you on track if you ever thought of changing jobs or if you weren’t meeting productivity rates. I must say, you exceeded all our expectations.’
Paul was light headed. Sarah was fake? A part of him always knew meeting someone at a boggle tournament was too good to be true but he never expected to be right about it.
The alien continued ‘I just need to change the parameters of the simulation so you can’t die so easily next time and then I think we can roll this out on a large scale! Much more efficient to have thousands of people per simulation you see. Our clients will be so pleased.’
Paul couldn’t form words. He felt a sudden, burning hot anger and lunged for the alien, but with one flick of its long grey finger he was pressed up against the wall. The world faded and he heard the alien say something about reporting him to HR.
He was unconscious.
Paul ate breakfast before saying bye to Sarah. He slipped on his coat and got on the train for work. He sat down, unfolded his paper and began to do the quiz. ‘Which of the following statements would provide the most comfort after a company lost your private information?’ Man, these were getting tougher... ‘The number of the chair on page 14 that is most appealing to a humanoid?’ Some of them looked like they weren’t even designed for people!
He pressed on, Sarah had mentioned redecorating the house and the prize this week was a bath-store gift card. He smiled to himself as he watched the rolling hills outside the train window. It felt like today was going to be a good day.