Arjun had been stuck in Mumbai traffic when the world dissolved in kaleidoscope, replaced by a tiny room. The walls were onyx, with a lacquered sheen that gave the impression the blackness beneath had a depth that went on forever. He sat on sturdy white chair, and no more than two paces in front of him was an office desk behind which resided a woman, staring with mannequin glaze. A sudden panic consumed him, and Arjun began to scream, holding onto the chair with its comforting solidarity like a bear trapped halfway up a tree. The woman’s blank expression lifted, startled. She moved her hands in the air as if adjusting an invisible dial here, depressing a phantom button there. Satisfied with her arcane motions, she folded her hands and leaned slightly forward as if waiting for an answer from a pupil.

There was a moment delay, and the bottom fell out from Arjun’s anxiety. His clawed grip on the chair relaxed. He was still perplexed, perhaps even more so now that the fog of terror had evaporated, but no more so than he had been staring down the traffic on the clogged back road of Mumbai. Despite his confusion, he even felt a touch of embarrassment worming through his chest and reddening his cheeks. He took a look around the room once more to collect himself.

“Are you comfortable?” The woman asked. She had a strange accent he couldn’t place. Sterile, like a news broadcaster practiced at eliminating distinction.

“Yes?” Even he wasn’t sure if it was an answer or a question. “Excuse me. Um, where-”

“Of course, of course,” the woman nodded. “That’s always the first question. Let me try to get the wording right this time. I’m pleased to be your guide through this debriefing as a subject in ‘Examining the Social and Military Ramifications of External Contact.’ This simulation has sought to determine the likely aftereffects of direct contact with a foreign species, and whether those aftereffects could constitute a threat to the Alclave. My name is Eva, and I will be asking a few questions in regards to what you have just witnessed, if that is acceptable?” She tilted her head, waiting for an answer. Arjun’s head spun.

“The traffic…?” Arjun said, not sure what Eva was saying. Was he dreaming? Hallucinating, drugged? None of this made sense.

“Traffic?” Eva echoed, suddenly very interested. “Was normal travel interrupted in your experience?”

“You’re simulating traffic?”

“Oh. Oh no, of course not!” She waved his assertion off and tugged her strange robe-like dress down to eliminate the wrinkles. “I’m sorry, let me start from the beginning. May I proceed with the questions, um…” She made a swiping motion in the air. “Arjun Dhawan? What an interesting name. Arjun Dhawan!” She looked like she was chewing on the words. “I’m really only an intern, you understand, so a lot of this is new to me.”

Arjun was still unafraid, the peculiar sense of calm still suffused his mind, but there was an unease creeping at the edge of his perception. He wanted nothing more to leave this strange, shiny-black room and the peculiar woman and her desk and go home. It occurred to him he could find no door anywhere on the walls.

“I just want to go home, I’d really prefer…”

“That is certainly an option, once we complete the debriefing.” Eva said, quite chipper. “If I can just ask a few questions we can discuss what happens afterwards. It really won’t take long, I promise, and you have all the time in the world.”

Arjun thought he should be frustrated, perhaps even furious if he could no longer bring himself to be frightened. But the situation really felt quite normal, even if it certainly didn’t seem that way. Perhaps it was a dream afterall. Eva took his silence as acceptance.

“Can you recall April 12, 2022?” Eva asked.

He shook his head. “Not really. That was almost a year-”

“Really? You don’t remember K22856?” She seemed perplexed, “Maybe I have the wrong date. The conversions really are quite difficult.”

“Well, of course I remember that,” Arjun said. “That was the day they first confirmed somebody had built those…uh ‘whatsits’ around that star. Around ‘K22-and all that.”

“The star dams, that’s it.”

“I just didn’t think of it, I thought you were talking about what I did during that day.”

“Well yes, that too.” Eva said. She bit the nail of one of her fingers. “I’m probably leading the interview too much, aren’t I?”

“I remember hearing that announcement. People were pretty curious. My wife read everything she could about it for the next two weeks. She was obsessed. Got Saya hooked as well.”

“Wait, wife?”

“Right, Priya my wife.”

Eva was looking over her desk at notes that did not seem to be there. “Lifetime pairing, how could I forget?” She said to herself, abashed. “Saya your offspring, that’s listed here as well.”

“Yes, my daughter.” Arjun said, furrowing his brow.

“The simulation didn’t seem to have a large outbreak of violence after this discovery around star K22856. Would you say that is an accurate characterization based on your experience?”

Some anger crept past whatever block had existed on Arjun’s feelings, and he scowled, his voice rising. “What do you keep saying, ‘simulation?’ Am I in some sort of trouble? Has there been a crime?”

Eva adjusted an air dial once more and Arjun calmed. The cause and effect was not lost on him.

“Is that some sort of drug?”

“No trouble, Arjun Dhawan. Why would you think that?”

“Look at where I am!” He exclaimed, mustering the last remaining vestiges of force in his voice. It came out as indifferent comment.

“It is disconcerting, I understand. But this is fascinating. The Combine Force Projection simulations showed a thirty-six percent increase in violent crime after the discovery of the star dams, and the destabilization of a number of local governments. However, when we reran the simulations from archives, that wasn’t the case. The subjects, like you, have confirmed our data.”

“Who are the Combine Force Project?”

“Ah, the military or the army. It’s ‘Projection.’ A branch of the Alclave.”

“Doesn’t sound like India.” Arjun said. “Are you Pakistani?”

“They are an enemy?” Eva asked, excited again. When he didn’t answer, she tilted her head and looked back down at her desk.

“Let’s skip ahead to the day the message arrived. From K22856.”

Arjun had begun looking for a door to escape, but he gave Eva enough of his attention to answer. “You know as well as I do. It was totally different. Everyone remembers where they were on Message Day. I was at home cooking dinner with Priya. Saya was sitting at the table, singing…” Arjun smiled, his escape plans forgotten for a moment. “It was…’My Favorite Place.’ She had just learned it at school. The TV was running on the counter. The show was interrupted and that pudgy reporter from Channel Six told everyone about the message from the strange star.”

“How did you react?”

“How do you think? I was worried, Saya could tell I think. She wanted to know what was going on, even asked to turn the TV off.” He gave a short laugh. “Priya was excited, much more than I was. Immediately began wondering ‘what it might mean.’ Are they friendly? Think of what we can learn!”

“Why were you worried? Did you not agree with your mate?” Eva said.

Mate. The woman had no social grace. “I was excited too, but I was thinking of the fallout. Within a few days there was violence around the world. People got scared, lots of panic. Some blamed the government, others didn’t believe the politicians, thought it was some scam. It was a mess for a while.”

Eva looked back at her desk for another excited moment. “Even then,” she said, “there was only a twenty-two percent increase in violent crime over that time. And government turnover was negligible.”

“So? It was still awful. Someone bombed a building just down the street from our apartment. A lot of people died in countless countries.” Arjun said. He couldn’t even be sure why he was answering these questions. His search for doors had turned inward, trying to decipher his strange behavior.

“So? So, the Combine’s projections had almost five times those figures! Massive turnover, and religious and secular distrust of the message. Their simulation was central to their recommendation to the Alclave.” Eva sounded distressed, and something about the statement made Arjun’s blood frigid.

“What recommendation?”

“They thought it was prudent to destroy the Sol system, including Earth.”

A realization crept in on Arjun, a claw that cut stinging wounds up his chest until it gripped his head in ice.

“This isn’t real, is it?” He asked.

Eva shook her head. “Why of course it is, it’s a simulation.”

“Where are we?” Arjun demanded.

“Right now, we are orbitting K22856. But technically we are on the station’s optical data network. We’ve run this particular simulation twenty-three times, with similar results for every test. It should be of great interest to the Al-”

“How long have I been here? Why did you bring me here?” Arjun found enough emotion to stand and clench his fists. However, Eva seemed confused.

“You’ve…always been here, Arjun Dhawan. The Melecant Tribunal recently ruled that all machine intelligences of level 4 or higher be debriefed after participation in a full immersion simulation. We based everything on data collected from covert monitors on Earth, so you are an incredibly accurate representation of the other Arjun Dhawan. Likely only a 3% personality drift at most, disregarding unaccountable species differences! Though of course you have full autonomy and rights as a unique individual. Normally we aren’t even allowed to modify your emotive responses; you could technically bring me up on charges.”

“You mean. You mean, I’m not real? I’m a…a machine or something” He fell back into the sturdy white chair that wasn’t really there, not feeling it. The whole thing sounded absurd, impossible. And yet, he knew. Beyond a shadow of a doubt he knew it was true. Perhaps a side-effect of his “core-programming.” “Priya? Saya?”

“I’m somewhat confused, I must admit,” Eva said. “You ARE quite real, I assure you. Your wife and daughter are background simulation, however. They do not qualify beyond level 2. You of course have an important choice now that testing has completed. As promised, you can go home! The simulation will continue to run for your comfort. It really is only a minor draw on station resources. Of course, if you’d prefer we can put your portion of the simulation in cold storage. Um, is there a problem? Many of the level 4s have had this reaction.”

A few tears were trailing down Arjun’s face. He didn’t bother to wipe them away as they didn’t exist anyway. “Cold storage is ‘turned off?’”

“That is accurate, I suppose,”

There was a silence, before he spoke up once more. “You said the Combine, whoever. They recommended destroying Earth. Will this help? I mean, will this new simulation change their mind? It wasn’t all peaceful, I know, people were scared. But they – we. We seem good, I think. The people you are simulating, I mean.”

Eva frowned again. “Oh. I’m sorry, I should have been more clear. That original simulation was over four-hundred, uh, years ago. We are just reanalyzing the data, you understand. Internal audit. Earth was sterilized soon after.”

“Of course.” Arjun said. “Cold storage, please. Right away.”

Eva didn’t answer him, just stared a long while as if reading something on his face. Then she bobbed her head once, and adjusted an invisible dial on her desk.

As the world began to fade, Arjun thought of his wife and his daughter that never were. Of a world that might have never been as he knew it, and a life that wasn’t. His final remembrance was of the transmission from Message Day.

“Your forgiveness, please”