He’d been acting differently ever since he’d gone to that smoothie place. Emma couldn’t get him to shut up about it. She knew that Andy had always had an addictive personality. He would discover some new restaurant, or some new band, and he couldn’t stop talking about it. After a few weeks he’d surely get burnt out on the subject. He always did.

But this time felt different.

“They’re only smoothies.”

“They’re excellent smoothies,” Andy said to her. “The best smoothies I’ve ever had. I’ve been there three times already. We should go sometime so I can show you. In fact, we should go tonight. I’ll pay for it.”

Thursday nights were supposed to be their movie nights. They’d been doing it ever since they’d started dating. Almost four years, now. They’d seen every movie on Netflix, and a lot of them twice. Emma knew it was serious if he was willing to skip it tonight. They were supposed to be rewatching one of Andy’s favorites this week.

“What’s this place called?” Emma asked.

“Smile Smoothies.”

“They new?”

“Yeah. Opened less than a month ago. And I gotta say, they really know what they’re doing.” Andy’s smile looked strained. His eyes were wide with eagerness. Emma had to genuinely wonder if he’d been doing drugs. Hey, they could drug the smoothies. It wouldn’t be a terrible business strategy. Keeps the customers coming back.

Emma tried to change the subject. “Which movie are we watching tonight? It’s your pick, remember?”

“I know, I know.” Andy’s smile was frozen on his face. “But I really want a smoothie tonight.”

“But it’s movie night!”

“No problem. We’ll go out, we’ll get the smoothies, bring them back.”

“It’s late. And it’s cold out. And I’m not really in the mood for a smoothie.” Emma put on her best pout, but Andy was unaffected.

He said, “It’s not far from here. Five minute’s drive. Maybe ten. We’ll be back before nine. Plenty of time for a movie.”

Emma threw her head back. “Fine. But if it’s busy, we’re not sticking around.”

“No problem.”

They got in the car. The drive was much longer than ten minutes. Probably twenty. And the parking lot was full too, so they were pretty much guaranteed to get home after nine thirty. Smile Smoothies was a big place, a big chunk of the shopping center it resided in. People were coming and going, the door constantly open. They seemed to be smiling, so the place didn’t have a terrible name. The cups were all a bright green, and the interior was the same color.

As they went in, a young couple around the same age as them was talking about free samples. In fact, it sounded like everyone was murmuring about them.

“Hey, Smile Smoothies!” the employees at the door said as they came in.

“Hey, Smile Smoothies!” the man at the register said.

“Hey!” Andy said to them, grinning. “Smile Smoothies!”

“Ha ha ha!” the employees laughed.

The other customers joined. “Ha ha!”

“Ha ha!” Andy agreed. “I brought my girlfriend. She’s never been here before.”

The man at the register pointed at them. “Free samples?”

“Yes!” Andy said. “Emma, have a free sample.”

Before she knew it, somebody had put a little paper cup in her hand. The smoothie was the same bright green. It seemed too watery, not thick enough for a proper smoothie. Emma realized it was the same shade of green that cartoons always used to indicate radioactive materials.

She tipped the paper cup into her mouth and drank it.

“Hm,” she said. It wasn’t that great. It was more like a juice than a smoothie, really, and she wasn’t much of a juice person.

Emma noticed that she was walking without realizing it. Her feet had brought her to the trash to toss her cup away. She felt funny. Her arm had thrown the paper cup in the trash as if outside of her command.

She tried to move her legs back toward Andy, but she realized that she couldn’t. Her body was moving all by itself.

Emma felt dizzy.

Her head turned as more customers came in, a family of four. “Hey, Smile Smoothies!” the parents said.

“Hey!” the employees echoed back. “Smile Smoothies!”

“Smile Smoothies!” she heard Andy agree.

“Hey!” Emma told the family. “Smile Smoothies!”

She had no control over her actions whatsoever. The words had simply popped out of her mouth. She was trapped in her own body, watching herself doing all of this. She found herself crossing the room, taking a tray of little paper cups, and holding them out to the family.

“Ha ha!” the father of the family said. “I brought my kids. They’ve never been here before.”

“Free samples?” Emma heard herself offer.

From the corner of her eye, she saw Andy smiling at her. It was that same strained smile that she’d seen on his face before they’d left the house. And his eyes were wide, not with excitement, but with fear. He was experiencing the same thing she was. He’d been taken by the smoothies days ago.

And he’d had to watch her drink it.

The children in the family took the little paper cups from her tray. Emma wanted to stop them, to yell, to knock the cups out of their hands, but she kept smiling, and her body was perfectly still.

“Hm,” said the youngest child, who’d drank it first. The kid threw the cup in the trash and returned to the family, smiling.

“Hm,” said the other two kids. Then they were smiling too.

More customers came in. “Hey, Smile Smoothies!” the employees all cheered.

“Hey!” the customers said. “Smile Smoothies!” But it wasn’t all of the customers who said it. It was only about half of them.

“Hey!” Andy said. “Smile Smoothies!”

“Hey!” said Emma. “Smile Smoothies!”

“Ha ha!” laughed the employees.

“Ha ha ha!” Emma and Andy laughed, grinning at each other.

And the customers laughed too. Most of them. “I brought my husband,” a woman told them. “He’s never been here before.”

Andy went to fetch a tray. “Free samples?”


Simulate (Part Four)


(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)

They walked down a hall. It was a featureless hall. No doors on the sides, no decorations on the walls. Straight and bland. Jack’s arms swung at his sides. Venus held her briefcase on her right, though her posture implied that the thing was weightless.

“Planets, huh?” Jack asked. “Never been to Mars before. Sounds like a good time. Will there be oxygen?”

Venus didn’t respond.

“I’ll bet humans don’t even need oxygen to breathe. I bet your people made that up. I mean, really, invisible gases floating through the air that you’ll die without? Yeah right. Crazy what people will believe. And DNA! How the heck does that stuff work? And… And quantum physics! How could I have fallen for that one! It simply doesn’t make a bit of sense!”

Venus still remained silent. They came to the end of the hall, which appeared to be a blank wall. No, there was a little button in the center.

Venus pressed the button.

The wall slid upward, revealing a little box inside, like an elevator that wanted to be a car. But when the door opened, there were two little sofas inside.

“Have a seat,” Venus said, with only a hint of a gesture.

Jack sat across from her. “Neat place.”

The door shut, and the tiny room descended. Or maybe it rose. It was hard to tell. Jack tapped a rhythm on his pants, waiting. Venus could’ve been a statue in front of him.

The walls fell away, or perhaps they simply vanished, and they were suddenly hurtling through a dark space. It was possible that they’d left Earth completely. Jack kept up his rhythm, trying to remember the name of the song he had stuck in his head. He wondered if Venus had written it herself.

Now Jack was sure that they were falling. He was pretty sure he’d seen this in a video game, when you fall out of bounds into the infinite space beneath the level. He hoped Venus hadn’t gotten lost.

Their little sofas started to decelerate, and they were suddenly fading into another space, a room full of electronics. They’d landed right in the center of the place. Enormous computers were in every direction. The room might’ve gone on forever.

“So what’s the deal?” Jack asked, entirely unfazed.

Venus frowned at him. “You aren’t the first human of your kind to come down here.”

Jack’s eyes lit up. “Really? I can’t imagine. What happened to them? You killed ‘em, right?”

She was still frowning. “Normally during that trip, people burst into tears, or at the least they start screaming.”

“Eh,” Jack said. “None of it mattered much to me.”

Venus stood. “This is a worse case than I thought.”

He led her through the room. None of the computers were doing anything. In fact, the entire space was silent. Jack had the sense that none of these electronics actually did anything. Venus was just trying to impress him, no doubt.

“So where are the planets?” Jack asked.


They turned a corner, because suddenly they were at the end of the room, and there were multiple armchairs in a conference room ahead. Men and women were in each chair, except for two.

Venus sat amongst the others. They were all dressed the same. They all had the same briefcase.

Only then did Jack realize that the other unoccupied chair was essentially facing the rest like he was about to be on trial. “Hey guys.” He sat lazily, one leg draped over the right arm of the chair.

“You have violated the simulation,” a man said.

“Yup, sure looks that way.” Jack looked side to side, then stuck out a hand. “Jack. Name’s Jack. But you already knew that, am I right?”

None of them moved. “We are the programmers,” a woman answered.

Jack retracted his hand. “No kidding? I figured as much. Now, tell me this: If she’s Venus…” He pointed at one of the women, but they all looked so alike he’d managed to forget which was Venus. “…I suppose that makes you Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and so on?”

“Correct,” a man said.

Jack grinned. “And which one of you poor saps got stuck with the name Uranus?”

“I did,” said a man.

“He had the name before the planet,” a woman explained. “We created the concept of planets in this world, naming them after ourselves.”

Another man added, “It was a joke to make the word Uranus funny in the English language. To our coworker’s detriment.”

“Ha ha!” Jack said. “Of course! I can tell you guys all have a great sense of humor.”

“Yes,” a woman said. “Any simpleton who pays attention to current events must realize that.”

“So what was the deal with Pluto? What happened there? Is he a planet or not?”

“I am,” a man responded. “I am Pluto. I briefly left the development team to work on a personal project. But I have returned, and regained my status as a planet.”

“Trying your hardest to fill the plot holes,” Jack said, nodding. “Gotcha. Gotcha. Sounds like you made a real mess of things.”

“Any severe problem can be corrected through reprogramming,” a man said. It might’ve been Uranus who spoke, but they were so hard to keep straight. “We will perform a software update if it becomes necessary.”

“Was that the whole Y2K thing? Man, what a laugh! Except nothing happened. Same with 2012.”

“Those were not software updates,” a woman droned.

Another woman elaborated, “Typical updates result in eliminating problems, through the use of earthquakes or hurricanes.”

“Wow,” said Jack. “That’s really dark. Tough luck for those folks.”

His comment was met with silence.

“So which way am I going out?” he continued. “Tornado? Tsunami? Maybe a basic car accident. Ooh, can you have me die from a piano falling on my head, like in the cartoons? I always thought that’d be a real wacky way to go.”

Still, silence.

“You are going to kill me, right?”

“We will not be killing you,” a man said. “We were… impressed by your attitude.”

“That,” said Jack, “is the opposite of what I thought you were going to say.”

A woman told him, “The scientists of this world have made incredible advances in astronomical research. We were considering… adding another planet.”

Jack froze. “Another planet. Do I get to pick the name? Or is it just going to be called Jack? Honestly, that’s a terrible name for a planet. I don’t know if you have the same perception of how the names sound, but it simply wouldn’t do.”

His words went unheard. A man in the very center of the planets reached behind his armchair and retrieved a briefcase, one that perfectly matched his own. One that perfectly matched everybody else’s.

“Please consider our request,” he said. “Including a programmed human in our team would provide us with interesting perspectives. It may help us achieve the purpose of this simulation.”

Jack’s eyes lit up. “Oh, the purpose? And what is the purpose of this simulation?”

“It’s simple,” a woman replied. “We want you humans to create a simulation that is even more powerful than your own. That is why we sparked the computer age.”

“Does that seem like the best idea?” Jack asked. “I mean, do you people think that your world, one layer above this, is in a simulation too?”

“It’s possible.”

“But what if that’s their goal? What if they invented you so you would invent this simulation? And now you’re just using it to make another one! Is this one even more powerful? Seems awfully recursive to me.”

“Infinitely deep simulations,” a man said. “Infinite power.” He extended his arm, passing him the briefcase. “Please consider our request.”

Jack took the briefcase, uneasy. “Oughta be fun,” he muttered.

“Look inside, and you will see your controls,” a woman said.

“Controls?” Jack clicked the clasp, a very satisfying click, and opened the briefcase up.

The contents were beyond anything he could’ve imagined.


(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Three)


Simulate (Part Three)


(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Four)

“Please, step into the van.”

It was a peculiar request. Peculiar all around. Here he was, standing in the middle of the freeway, gridlocked with traffic, and this woman named after a planet was telling him to get into her suspicious van with tinted windows.

“Yeah, sure,” Jack said.

“Good,” Venus said. She held her briefcase in front of her with folded hands. “You’ve been acting very erratically these past few hours, and I would like to know why.”

“Oh, ha ha, you’d like to know why.”

The back of the van was empty save two seats facing each other. He was pretty sure vans didn’t normally look like this on the inside. The rug was a nice touch. There was also no driver, but when Venus climbed in and sat across from him, she made no indication that a driver would be or ever had been with her.

“You already know why I’m doing this,” Jack told her. “I mean, you can probably read my mind. You can probably see how many hairs I have on my head.” He rubbed his scalp, suddenly curious.

“What you’re doing is breaking our game,” Venus said.

Jack’s face fell. “Game.”

“We designed this simulation in order to research human development. We set some parameters, created some landscapes, and inserted some fully-programmed humans,” she explained. “And we wanted to watch them treat this place like the real world.”

“Oh yeah?” Jack said. “Prove it!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Venus clicked open her briefcase. Jack couldn’t see what was inside from where he sat, but she appeared to be manipulating some sort of controls. “Ah,” she said. “The traffic is clearing.”

And indeed, the van started inching forward with the cars ahead.

The driverless van.

“We can’t have our humans acting erratically,” Venus told him. “It simply will not do.”

Jack tossed his hands in the air. “Okay. I get it. You want me to have a boring life, go back to my boring office, and do my boring job. And what if I don’t want to?”

“Then you will be erased.”

“Really? Just like that? Why not reprogrammed? Wake me up tomorrow with amnesia or something. What’s stopping you?”

Venus examined him, but she was looking at him like you might examine an animal at the zoo, waiting to see what bland little thing it might do next. “You don’t seem concerned by this prospect.”

“Nah, not really. Amnesia’s fun and all, and I won’t care about what happened if I don’t remember it, will I?”

Venus clicked her briefcase shut with a satisfying sound. “I will not be reprogramming any aspect of you. That would require speaking to the higher-ups.”

“Higher-ups? You’re named after a planet. Is your boss the Sun? The Milky Way?”

She was silent. The van was careening up the highway without another car in sight.

“I want to go to Europe,” Jack said. “You have designed the interior of Europe, haven’t you? I’ve seen the pictures.”

“We have environments in Europe, yes.”

“What about… Argentina! Or Sudan! Ooh! What about Cambodia? You designed that one yet?”

Again, Venus didn’t respond.

“What do you want from me?” Jack said. “You clearly didn’t want me going to the airport.”

“We want you to stop,” Venus answered.

“Stop! No! Give me one good reason! Give me money! No, wait! I don’t want money! It’s useless in a simulation! Give me fame! Give me women! No! Neither! That’s no fun! It’ll be meaningless! Give me money! Ah! No! I give up!” Jack slouched in his seat and crossed his arms. “Entertain me. How’s about that?”

“I will not entertain you. I ask that you return to your home and continue your life as usual for the sake of the other characters in your simulation.”

“Nah. No good. Gimme something better.”

The van took an exit, an exit not far from downtown. Jack had been expecting to be brought home, but this was nearly the opposite direction.

Venus tilted her head and studied him again. “There is no bargaining. You are a tool to us.”

“Oh ho ho! I think you’ll find bargaining will be quite beneficial,” Jack disagreed. “You think you can just spook me like this? Snatch me off the street and throw me in a van? Heck, I wasn’t even snatched! I got in willingly! What would you do if I just opened the van door right now and leapt out? Would I be allowed to die? Look! I didn’t even buckle my seatbelt!”

“You would survive if you exited this vehicle,” Venus said.

“You promise?”


“…But I’d probably be in great pain.”


Jack frowned.

She elaborated, “I will not alter variables for your sake. If you make a dangerous choice, you will face the consequences. A simulation with no punishments would not promote learning.”

“Is that what you want to do? Make me learn my lesson? Sounds kind of childish.”

The driverless van was rolling through downtown. It seemed to be getting every green light.

“The purpose of this simulation can not be disclosed,” Venus said. “Not by me.”

“Bah! You’re a disappointment,” Jack decided. “You reveal that you’re controlling my life, but now this? You can’t make it rain spaghetti either, can you? If you can’t even do that, then what good are you?”

“You will be dissatisfied with the answer to your questions.”

“No kidding! I just found out that my life is meaningless, and you’re really just rubbing it in now, aren’t you?”

Venus shook her head. “It’s quite the opposite. Our humans are not given a sense of purpose. The goal of our simulation is not disclosed to them. Only now that you’ve seen the truth do you know that your life is meaningful.”

The van screeched to a halt on a street with nothing of note on it. They were still downtown.

“Get out,” Venus said.

“Sure thing, pal.” Jack opened the door and hopped out.

It was possible he’d been down this street before. A clothing store up half a block ahead. A couple cruddy bars. An ATM. But when Venus got out of the van, she walked up to a door with no sign above it. It appeared to simply be a door in a brick wall. When she went to open it, Jack half-expected to just see more brick wall on the other side.

But there was a hallway.

“What is this, exactly?” Jack asked. He realized he’d gotten nervous.

Venus replied, “I’m taking you to the other planets.”


(Part One) (Part Two) (Part Four)

Simulate (Part Two)


(Part One) (Part Three) (Part Four)

Jack stopped at the coffee place right outside the office. He rubbed his hands together, inching forward in line, eager.

“What can I get you?” the woman at the register asked him.

“A smoothie,” Jack said. “No! Wait! Iced tea! Ah, no, a mocha, but with whipped cream, and sprinkles! And that caramel syrup! You know what? Get weird with it! Get real weird with it! Make me something absolutely bizarre!”

The woman stared at him. “What?”

“Just start mixing ingredients together,” Jack demanded. “Make it wild! Pick up anything and ask yourself, ‘would adding this be stupid?’ And then add that if the answer is yes.”

The woman kept staring. “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“Oh!” Jack exclaimed. “Am I not allowed to do that? Is that not an option that’s programmed in?”


“Yeah, sure, it must not be possible for you to execute that command. Fine. Whatever. Mocha. Whipped cream. And you bet your ass there’d better be sprinkles on it. Oh, wow, and get me one of those sandwiches too. Nah, just half of one. I’m not that hungry.”

The woman looked one hundred percent flummoxed, but she put in the order and motioned for Jack to get out of her sight.

A guy brought the drink out promptly, and the sandwich was soon after. “Hey, hey!” Jack said. “I only ordered half a sandwich.”

The guy looked at the plate. “Oh. You don’t want it?”

“No, not particularly. I doubt I’d finish it even if some external force mysteriously were able to empty my stomach. No, no, I won’t stand for this.”

The guy took a step back. “Look, man. I don’t want any trouble.”

Jack’s eyes lit up. “No trouble! No trouble! This isn’t what I ordered!” He snatched half the sandwich off the plate and held it in the air. “Here. Eat this. Get it out of my sight.”

“Eat it?”

“Good lord, my boy! This half of the sandwich needs to be disposed of! You don’t want it going to waste, do you?” He flapped the sandwich half in the guy’s face.

“Okay! Okay! Jeez!” He took the half from Jack’s hand and nibbled it nervously.

“Faster, I don’t have all day,” Jack demanded. “Customer’s always right and all that, yeah?”

The guy seemed close to tears. He was taking bigger and bigger bites. The whole half of the sandwich was gone in half a minute.

“Perfect! Perfeeeect!” Jack said. He took his drink and looked at the plate. “Eh, I’ll take this to go.” He picked the other half of the sandwich up and then struck the plate with his elbow. It hit the floor so hard it would’ve shattered it the programmers had been ready for it.

As he walked out of the coffee shop, he noticed a professionally dressed woman carrying a briefcase. She seemed to be looking right at him.

He went to the bus stop. He was going to do it. He was going to get on a bus, go to the airport, hop on a plane, not give a damn where it went, and maybe he’d just keep going, forever! Push this simulation to its limits!

The bus pulled up right before he was about to reach the stop. He’d just missed it. Ha! Tough luck. He’d have to wait for the next one. Fifteen minute’s time. Jack finished his drink and threw the empty cup on the ground, despite a trash can being inches away from him. Who cared? The cup would despawn as soon as he was out of this loading zone. Every video game did that. It saved memory. He finished the half of his sandwich and realized that he probably could’ve handled the other half of it.

The next bus came, but apparently it was totally full, filled to the brim, people packed in like sardines, so it just drove on without him. “Funny,” Jack said. “Weird! Ha ha! That’s nuts! Surely a coincidence!”

The next bus was running late. Real late. In fact, it seemed like it wasn’t going to show up at all after enough time had passed. “Whatever,” Jack said. “I’ll call a taxi.”

He took out his phone, looked up the number, and gave a taxi service a ring. An automated message came through, saying that all of their cars were busy, and would be for hours. Ha! On a Wednesday afternoon! Gibberish! He tried calling an Uber, but it seemed they were all busy too. Zany! Ludicrous!

A car stopped at the traffic light right in front of him. “Eh, this’ll do.”

Jack opened the door and got in the passenger seat.

It was an old man driving. “What! What are you doing? Get out of my car!”

“Hey man, nice to meet you,” Jack said, cheery as can be. “Where are you headed? Airport?”

“No! I’m not going to the airport! I’ve got to get these groceries home!”

Jack looked in the back seat. Bags of groceries were piled there, but he could’ve sworn they hadn’t been there a second ago. “Really? What a convenient excuse!”

The old man was suddenly frightened. “You’re one of those carjackers, aren’t you? Please! Don’t hurt me! I just want to go home to my wife!”

“Wow, what a cliché! Nah, nah, pal, cool it. I’m just trying to get to the airport. I know it’s something of a detour, but I’m in a bit of a hurry. I need to get there before the programmers manage to delete all of the planes.”

The man’s face changed. He was afraid, thinking he was talking to a crazy person. How wrong he was! “Alright. Alright. I’ll do as you say,” the old man whispered. The light changed, and he went.

Jack tilted his seat back, his hands behind his head. He hadn’t bothered with a seatbelt. “Ahhhhh yes. This is the life. Didn’t even have to pay bus fare.”

The old man was silent, focused on the road.

A couple of vans with tinted windows were driving on either side of them. Looked like something the CIA would do in a movie or something.

As soon as they were on the highway, traffic got really thick. Rush hour wasn’t supposed to start for another half hour or so. Somebody had decided it would come early today.

The old man was shaking with anxiety. His hands were tight on the wheel.

“You know what?” Jack said. “I’ve changed my mind. Looks like I’ll be walking. Heck of a lot faster than sitting in this, right?”

Without waiting another second, Jack opened the car door and stepped out onto the highway. Everybody was giving him odd looks. He paid them no mind.

There were a lot of vans on the highway, all with the same tinted windows he’d seen before. Goofy! Loopy!

As he passed by one of the vans, making great time by the way, the door slid open on one of them. A woman stepped out, holding a briefcase. She was dressed for success, that was for sure.

“Excuse me,” the woman said.

“Ha ha! Hello!” Jack said. “You’re walking too! Crazy traffic, right? Almost supernatural!”

The woman was expressionless. “My name is Venus. I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with me.”

(Part One) (Part Three) (Part Four)

Simulate (Part One)


(Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four)

“I think I’ve got it,” Jack said. “I’ve finally figured it out.”

Dylan looked up from his computer. “The error you were getting on the new software?”

“No, no, not that!” Jack said. He was grinning. “Life! I’ve figured out life!”

Dylan squirmed in his seat. “I see.” By now he should’ve been used to the nonsense that Jack spouted all the time.

“I was listening to a podcast a minute ago, and it was talking about living in a simulation,” Jack explained. He pressed his elbows into the back of Dylan’s chair and nudged him left and right. “Someday we’re going to have the technology to create a simulation of Earth, and populate it with life-like people, right?”

“A whole planet? That would take a lot of processing power.”

“Sure, but a thousand years in the future? Why not?” Jack’s grin had somehow gotten bigger. “So someday that’s possible, yeah? It’d be like a more realistic version of Sims.”

Dylan tossed a hand in the air. “Yeah. It’s possible.”

“If the simulation is realistic enough, then over the span of a few thousand simulated years, the people in that simulation would be capable of creating their own simulation. Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Dylan repeated. “It’s possible.”

“And it keeps going down. Simulations within simulations within simulations. Theoretically infinite! And do you know what that means?”


Jack spread his arms dramatically. “If there are infinite layers of simulations, what are the odds that we’re in the real world?”

Dylan wrinkled his nose. “Low, I’d suppose.”

“Exactly! It’s proof that our lives aren’t real!”

“Proof, huh? This all sounds theoretical.”

“But you admit that it’s possible, so if there can be simulations like that, then it’s already happened! Who knows how deep down the rabbit hole we are right now!” Jack was looking around the office, as if he were expecting a standing ovation. Clearly nobody else was listening.

Dylan clicked around his computer, pretending Jack wasn’t there for a moment, but he eventually had to ask, “What’s your point?”

Jack’s eyes widened. “My point?”

“Yeah. So what if we’re in a simulation? Life’s still life. Feels real enough to me.”

“Don’t you get it? It explains everything!”

“Everything? Name one thing it explains.”

“Why is my life so boring?” Jack asked. “Nothing exciting happens to me. No serious accidents. No serious illnesses. Maybe some minor drama, but nothing too wild. Think about it. My life has been as generic as possible. I’ll bet the simulation is why I haven’t had a serious long-term girlfriend in so long! They programmed it that way!”

“Why would the simulation be programmed to make your life boring?”

“Processor power! Too much to program! I don’t know!” Jack was ecstatic. “I couldn’t even be sure that you’re real! I’m probably the only conscious person in this whole simulation!”

Dylan frowned. “Well now I’m certain that you’ve lost your mind.”

“Processor power!” he said again. “I hear about crazy things happening to other people all the time, but never me! It’s too much to design. Hell, they probably haven’t created most of the planet. Any place I travel to, they have to make a bunch of 3D structures, and populate it with a bunch of character models! I’ll bet that’s why I’ve never left the country! I’ve always wanted to see Indonesia, or somewhere crazy far like that. And I’d look out the window the whole flight, so they have no choice but to generate all of that ocean!”

“Sounds like a basic copy-past job to me.” Dylan saw Jack’s passionate expression was unchanged. “You can leave the country if you want.”

“But they can control events! Maybe they’ll slow down my perception of time, make me freeze, so they have more time to program! It’s just a hassle for them. Maybe they planted the idea in my head not to bother leaving the country! Every time they think I’m getting close to traveling to a new location, they dissuade me, make me hesitant!”

Dylan shook his head and sighed. “I asked you what the point was, and I feel like we haven’t made any ground on that subject.”

“The point is that I don’t give a shit!” Jack exclaimed.

That made a few heads pop up in the neighboring cubicles.

“Nothing is real! I can do whatever I want!”

“Sure, you can do whatever you want,” Dylan said. “But you’ll still face consequences that feel very real. And you still haven’t given me any serious evidence that we’re in The Matrix.”

“Think about all of the things in this world that don’t really make sense,” Jack tried.

“Like what?”

“Physics! Chemistry!”

Dylan’s face drooped. “You don’t understand physics or chemistry?”

“Yeah! Like, what the hell is electricity? And radio waves! How do those work? How does the internet work? You’re telling me that there’s hundreds of gigabytes of information flying around the air all the time, invisible? Yeah right!”

“Well…” Dylan hesitated. “If you’d read a textbook once in awhile, you could understand it.”

“No!” Jack proclaimed. “No! I’m done with this office! I’m done with this job! None of this matters! I’m the only conscious man alive! They won’t let anything happen to me! They need me to stay alive for the sake of the simulation!”

Dylan pressed his palms into his eyes. “Who’s they?”

“The programmers!” Jack waved a hand. “I don’t have to argue with you. You’re just going to say whatever they want you to say. It’s meaningless!”

“I have never known nihilism to strike somebody so hard and so suddenly.”

Jack started strutting away. “I’m outta here! I’m going to do whatever the hell I want!”

Dylan considered stopping him. But this would be fun to watch.

Jack hammered his fist on the door to the boss’s office, then opened it without waiting for a reply. “I’m leaving,” he told the boss. “Goodbye!”

The boss sat up straight. “You can’t leave work an hour early!” he said.

“Why not?”

His boss frowned. “Hm. Alright. Be on your way then.”

As Jack strolled up the hall, he gave Dylan a smile and an I-told-you-so sort of look. Already he was loosening his tie and untucking his shirt.

Dylan tried to focus on his computer again, but found it difficult. “That guy needs to stop listening to so many podcasts.”

On the other end of the office, a woman was sitting with her briefcase on her lap. She popped it open, touched something inside for a moment, and then shut it again. She stood and followed Jack out the door.

(Part Two) (Part Three) (Part Four)



They had infected him while he was sleeping. Somehow the little Bugs had slipped in through a crack in the window, or maybe they’d squeezed in though the floorboards, and they’d infected him.

Jamison couldn’t stop seeing spam everywhere he went. A little pop-up would appear when he walked through the kitchen, telling him about great deals at local stores he’d never heard of. When he went by the TV, a thousand ads for shows, for movies, for illegal downloads, for torrenting, would all whizz in front of his eyes. He’d try to go to sleep, but whoever was sending the brunt of the spam was likely on the other side of the world, in another time zone, sending him ad after ad after ad for Viagra, or for prostitutes with bizarrely punctuated names. He’d been contacted by seven hundred Nigerian princes seeking to give him money.

He’d have to get his eyes removed. It was the only solution. Either that or a software patch of some kind. New eyes would cost several thousand dollars, probably two month’s salary, but a software update might make his eyes work even worse, and that was assuming they got rid of the Bugs at all.

Jamison shook his head every time another ad came up and he brushed it away. He wished he’d woken up before it happened. He wished he’d heard the little tittering of the Bug when it climbed up onto his bed. He wished he’d felt it crawling across his chest in the night, slipping into his eyelids and infecting his cyberware. But he’d slept through it, and he hated himself for it.

Every day was agony. He’d wake up, swipe away some ads, go to work swiping away ads all the while, sit at his desk and try to get work done while swiping ad after ad, and then he’d go home and just switch his eyes off, because he was sick of the things completely. He’d rather be blind than deal with another Russian woman trying to seduce him with inexcusably bad grammar.

But he needed his eyes! Jamison always liked to check his vitals in the morning, and his nutrition, but the diagrams that he brought up would always get smothered under the spam. He could barely read off his own heart rate under all the crap. Even trying to use his car, adjusting the settings to avoid traffic, he couldn’t trace his finger along the GPS before another ad popped up in his eyeballs, ruining the route. Jamison had gotten very good at drawing routes quickly, even if it meant a little clumsiness that sent him down a weird side-street or two.

He put up with it for a week and a half. Then he went to get some new eyeballs.

“A Bug, huh?” the surgeon said. Jamison could tell that the surgeon had a chart drawn on his eyes, the way that he was moving his hand in front of him to scroll through it. Jamison had no idea how his chart looked, because he hadn’t had the heart to check on it since he’d been infected.

“I’ve had the Bug for a week and a half,” Jamison told the surgeon. “Ten days. No, maybe eleven. It’s all a miserable blur. I can’t even remember.”

The surgeon nodded, still flipping his hand through invisible pages. “Health has been on a steady decline. Nothing serious, only minor, but the change is there. Sleep cycles are, ouch, really quite poor. My, you should have come in sooner. Your mood has been nearly at the level of a person with chronic depression.”

“I’m really sick of the spam,” Jamison said. “But I’m not sure that I’m looking for a software patch. The last update that I got made my vision a little blurry around the edges, and I think the resolution was lower.”

The surgeon paused, his eyes clearing as he brushed the chart away. “You haven’t gotten a patch since that one? That was quite some time ago. You should be keeping up. That may be the reason you were infected by the Bug so easily.”

“I don’t like the patches,” Jamison said with a little shrug. “All the settings go back to defaults, and I have to relearn some of the hand gestures.”

“Only every few years is there a patch that changes the gestures,” the surgeon said. He looked like he wanted to get off of this topic. “So you’re thinking of getting a new model of eyes, then?”

“I do have some concerns about, um, cost. If there’s any kind of virus detection program that can remove them…”

“This Bug is quite advanced. If you’d kept up on the patches, security may have… Ah well, what’s done is done. I think we can find new eyes that will fall into your price range, though you may find a decrease in resolution, and perhaps fewer features.”

Jamison quickly said, “I don’t need a lot of features. Besides the health monitors and the maps, and the other basics, I really don’t use much of anything.”

The surgeon nodded, pulling up a page on his eyes. “Good, good. I think you’ll be an easy customer, if that’s the case.” He swiped his hand, brushing page after page in front of his eyes. “The very cheapest model is currently running in 720p. Quite a downgrade, but it’s on the table.”

Jamison nodded. 720p was pretty terrible resolution, but he could consider it.

The surgeon gestured at the desk between them. He’d really meant that they were on the table. A small vial of white eyeballs were sitting in the corner. The surgeon picked them up and displayed them. “All of your basic applications, three-year warranty. I can pull up a price sheet if you want to include phone calls and video calls.”

“Oh, right.” He’d had forgotten how often he used the video calls. He could go back to only audio, couldn’t he? An ad for teeth whitening popped up, and he swiped it away angrily. He’d gotten so quick about swiping away the ads, he’d accidentally deleted a couple of important emails already.

The surgeon rattled the eyeballs in front of his face. “Do these suit your needs?”

Jamison struggled to convince himself that he could handle 720p. “Show me some more options.”

The surgeon lifted his fingers to his eyes and swept forward, sending a webpage straight from his eyes to Jamison’s. “There are many options,” the surgeon told him. “I’m sure we’ll find something to suit you.”

The prices were a lot higher than when Jamison had last gotten new eyes, almost a decade ago. The cheapest option was almost as expensive as the eye’s he already had had been, and that wasn’t including the monthly payments.

After shifting through the documents for a moment, Jamison let out a long, tired breath. “Okay. Alright. I’ll take the cheap 720p eyes.”

The surgeon lifted the vial again and rattled them around. “Good. I think you’re making a good choice.”

Another ad popped up, and Jamison swiped it away.




It was getting easier, since her parents had died. When they’d fallen from that building, Carrie’s life had completely changed. Her closest relative, her uncle, lived deep in Nevada. Deep, deep, where all there was to see was hills and grass and stone.

Carrie liked the cows. They spent all day wandering around, nibbling on the brush, and sometimes Carrie would follow them all the way up The Big Hill, on the farthest corner of her uncles property.

There was a town about eight miles away, but maybe town wasn’t the right word. Town sounded too big. It was just a stop, a place to get a bite and chat with strangers. None of them were strangers to her uncle. He knew every man, every woman, every kid. They only went into town a couple times a week, and it was just to buy food, or fill up the truck with gas.

Carrie was only nine years old. Her uncle knew that she wasn’t to be trusted with any real work on the farm. All that she had to do was let the cows out at the crack of dawn, and then round them back up before sundown. It was like a game, really. Carrie went all over the land, over the hills, around the big stones, and under the one big tree on the whole property. She’d find every single cow, and she’d offer it food and let it follow her back home. It took a couple of hours to get them all, but it was sorta fun, and the cows were all really nice.

When she’d first come here, there had been seventeen cows, but now there were only sixteen. Her uncle hadn’t told her what happened to the seventeenth one. There’s a little room in the back of the big barn, a room that her uncle never let her look at. He said it was where the cows got turned into meat. Carrie had no idea what happened in that room, and she was scared to look.

Every week, a man in a big truck came by. Her uncle always asked for Carrie’s help moving all of the milk. The man in the big truck bought the milk at two dollars a gallon, which didn’t seem like very much, but her uncle didn’t mind. There wasn’t much to spend money on out here anyway.

Carrie missed talking to people, to kids, to friends. She talked to the cows a lot. Every day she gave them new names, because they were so hard to tell apart. Today the two under the big tree were named Betty and Susie. Tomorrow they might be Billy and Sally. On some days, Carrie had time to go over the whole land, all along the prickly fence, and she’d name every single cow, but she’d always forget which names she’d already used by the time she got to the last ones.

There was a time that her uncle forgot to fill up the truck with gas when he went into town, and he didn’t have enough to get to the gas station. He had to walk for miles to get a big orange container full of gasoline. It took him ages to get back home. Carrie had never really thought about how big the world was before. The hills went on and on and on and on. Before cars were invented, how did anybody get anywhere?

And it captivated her. Most days, just as the sun was setting, just before she was supposed to round up the cows, Carrie would climb up The Big Hill and look at it all. On the clearest of days, the hills never ended. She wanted to run until she found the edge of the world. But there was no edge. It really did go on forever.

On her first night at her uncle’s farm, she hadn’t slept at all. She kept thinking over and over that her life was finished, and this was some new, imitation life. She wasn’t ever seeing her parents again. She wasn’t ever seeing her school friends again. She wasn’t ever going to have new friends, not as long as she was out here.

But sleeping got easier, because it was so tiring to climb the hills all day. When the sun set, Carrie got so tired that she couldn’t think about how sad she was. Or maybe she wasn’t really sad anymore. All that she felt was sleepy.

And this was how some people lived their lives. This was how her uncle did it. There was no time to feel if you were so busy managing cows, milking, bottling, working. There was something new for her uncle to do every single day. He had to fix a leak in the ceiling, or chop wood to build a fire, or go into town for something important. He scarcely even had time to talk to her.

Carrie hadn’t finished third grade, because she’d had to move out here, and she knew that as soon as summer ended, she’d have to go to the little school in town. Wouldn’t she? Her uncle didn’t have time to drive her into town every day, and he couldn’t afford the gas. She’d asked him about getting a bicycle, but he hadn’t really told her yes or no.

Maybe she didn’t have to go to school. Maybe she never had to learn ever again. It sounded nice, but it felt wrong in a way.

It was getting easier, since her parents had died. Since they’d fallen from that building, Carrie’s life had been put on pause. Time didn’t pass out here. Every morning was the same. Every afternoon was the same. Every evening was the same. Every night was the same. Was it a bad life? She couldn’t be sure. Maybe some day her uncle would teach her new things, like how to fix a leak in the ceiling, or how to chop wood to build a fire, or how to drive into town, and someday she could own the whole farm.

But for now, life was okay when it was on pause. If time stopped, maybe Carrie wouldn’t even notice.