“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.
“…But I’d probably be in great pain.”
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.”