Short Story: “Orientation”

You know that recurring dream about being unprepared for class? Mine was a doozie!

by P. Orin Zack

“I swear, if there’s one more pristine courtyard outside this door, I’ll kill the first person I see, assuming I ever find someone. Well, here goes…”

The big wooden door swung open to reveal a picture-perfect formal garden. The broad entry platform led down brick-edged stairs and gave onto a variegated gravel pathway that curved smoothly across a perfectly trimmed lawn and into a manicured Japanese garden.


What I wouldn’t give for the sight of just one botched pruning job, or even some litter. At least that might make this place a bit more human.

A stabbing pain tore through my side. I shut my eyes, forced a long slow breath, and leaned on the handle.

This is crazy. I’ve been searching for the classroom for so long that I’m going numb from boredom. I can’t remember seeing anyone else along the way, either. A few buildings back, I began to wonder if I was running in circles, but none of the hallways or gardens I’ve been through looked familiar. And yet, there’s something odd about it all, a vague itch in the back of my mind that says otherwise. The lab I signed up for has probably started by now, and I have no intention of missing the first day of class, even if I can’t remember what the heck class it is.

“I’m late, I’m lost, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let this place get the better of me.”

The door swing shut behind me and I ran down the steps onto the manicured path that wound through yet another carefully placed arrangement of shrubs and trees.

Oh, what’s the point. I don’t even remember when the damned class is supposed to start.

Hold on. What’s that by the door of that building over there?

“Hey, look everyone! A sign! What happened? Isn’t that a violation of whatever rules you people follow? You know: if you know where you’re going, you don’t need signs, and if you don’t, there’s no point offering any help?”

Oh, now that’s useful: a sign that only says Lab. Well, at least it’s confirmation that such places even exist around here.

I pulled the door open and looked down the bland hallway.

Voices. At least there’s someone here.

My feet started moving me towards the sound before I even had a chance to think about it.

Hmmm. Sounds like a crowd. At this point, I’d be grateful to find any class, even if it isn’t the one I signed up for. At the very least, there ought to be someone I can ask for directions, assuming that anyone there has even heard of the class I’m looking for.

The voices came from a behind a door about halfway down the hallway, on the right.

Okay, they’re in here. But what the heck is ‘Contextual Target Practice’? A title like that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in whomever it was that thought it up. Damn. I’m so worn out from just getting here that I can’t even remember what class I signed up for. Oh well. Might as well go in and see what I can find out.

“Peter! I was wondering where you’d gotten to.”

What? The teacher knows me? “I’m sorry. I… got lost on the way over, Mr…?” What is his name, anyway?

“Kelmar. And it’s not Mr.” He studied me for a moment. “You are lost, aren’t you. Look, why don’t you join Ankora over there and see if you can catch up.”

What the…? This is the class I signed up for? Why would I have done that? It doesn’t even sound interesting.

Kelmar surveyed the room. “As I was saying, the two aspects are only identifiable in contrast to one another. Neither one has any meaning on its own. But once you’ve experienced the difference, you won’t understand why it eluded you for so long.”

I listened as the lecture continued, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. I whispered a question to Ankora, but she wasn’t interested in giving me a quick catch-up, either, so I just sat quietly and hoped I could figure it out on my own.

A few minutes later, Kelmar asked everyone to stand and form a line. I followed Ankora towards the middle, but then casually drifted towards the end of the line.

“Peter, where are you going?” She wasn’t too pleased.

“Come on. Cut me some slack. I got here late. At least give a chance to see what’s going on.”

“Oh, all right.”

Now if I could only make some sense of all that drivel Kelmar’s been spouting. I mean, really. ‘Inverted Gnosis’? At least he could use real words. And what was all that about the stars being the realization of mythical insights about consciousness? Hasn’t he ever heard of physics? I should never have come.

As each person reached the front of the line — a spot marked on the floor with a strip of tape — they stood quietly for a moment, and then leaped to another strip of tape about three feet away. The thing was, about halfway across, every single one of them sort of flickered. I’ve got to tell you, the effect was pretty startling, especially because they all seemed to lose their balance on the way across, too. That’s what it looked like, anyway. At least, that’s the only way I can think of to describe what happens when someone starts a jump in complete control, and then suddenly looks like they were hit with some kind of randomizer.

I don’t know about this. It’s Ankora’s turn, I’m next, and I still haven’t figured it out. What the heck am I supposed to do, anyway? Well, I guess I’ll just follow her lead. The worst that can happen is I fall on my face.

There she goes. Up, a flicker, and she’s down.

Kelmar stepped close. “Okay, Peter. Your turn.”

Eeeek. Now what. “Um. I don’t know what to do.”

He just shook his head. “I’m sorry, but there’s really nothing I can say to help. You’ll just have to trust me. Look. Nobody else got hurt. You saw that. So go on. Just do it. Jump.”

All right. There’s no backing out now. Take a breath. Let it out. Calmly. Now!

< pfft >

Holy mother of Freud! What am I doing in bed? Wasn’t I just…? But this is my room. That’s my ceiling. And I swear I remember lying down here nearly an hour ago. But then where have I been running around? Was that a dream?

Dawn was brightening the sky, its red glow highlighting the old water stain I kept reminding myself to paint over before the moving van arrived.

I blinked a few times in confusion.

Something is definitely not right. It was too abrupt. If that whole annoying search, if the classroom and everything was nothing but a dream, then why didn’t I just spend fifteen minutes struggling to wake up? I’ve had dreams for as long as I can remember, and I’ve never once jumped directly from a dream to being awake. It just doesn’t happen. Not for me, anyway.

But if it wasn’t a dream, then what was it? I glanced over at the clock on my night table. It was just shy of six o’clock, so there was more than an hour before I had to get up and face the miserable traffic for one last day.

I know. I’ll hide.

I rolled over, pulled up the blanket…

< pfft >

…and almost had a heart attack from the shock of returning, mid-jump, to the lab.


I flailed awkwardly for a moment, trying to regain my balance, and somehow managed to land on my feet.

Kelmar flashed an amused smile, and then told everyone to return to their seats.

“Okay, everyone. Orientation is over. Now we can get down to business.”

‘Get down to business’? What the heck is going on around here?

“Tell me something, Ankora. What happened during your jump?”

“Oh, nothing much. Just another of those annoying lifetimes. I really wish I didn’t have to keep returning there. This place is so much more interesting.”

“Just what kind of a lab is this, anyway?”

She looked at me curiously. “Incarnation. Didn’t you read the syllabus? Why else would we be wasting our time with fleshing practice?”

“You’ve taken this class before, haven’t you?”

She sighed. “Yeah. Bad Karma, I guess.”


[Afterward: Read about the day the class was canceled in “Common Ground“.]

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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