Simulate (Part One)

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(Part Two)

 

“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?”

“Nope.”

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)

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Whispers

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“This is one is very dark.”

“Yes,” said Mrs. Harvard proudly. “That’s one of our best samples.”

Dr. Eloise Verde stepped closer to the cell, her fingernails sliding down the glass. The Being was almost impossible to see, nothing more than a shadow. “I can barely see it. But I think I can hear it.”

“You don’t hear it,” Harvard told her. “It’s not an auditory sensation. Purely a mental one. But this isn’t what I wanted to show you. We’ve found something better.”

Mrs. Harvard was a tall, broad-shouldered woman. Her hair was cut short, and her posture was so impeccable that she looked almost uncanny when she took her long strides forward. Had she not become a physicist, it would have been easy to picture her as an athlete, perhaps a swimmer.

Harvard kept moving at a brisk pace, barely giving Dr. Verde a chance to glance in the other rooms. Most of them were apparently unoccupied cells, glass boxes that showed no traces of having ever been touched, perfect cubes. Other cells were used to store equipment. It was difficult to be certain what precisely Verde was looking at when she only had a chance to spare a glance.

They were deep underground. Deep, deep underground. Nothing came in without authorization. Nothing got out without authorization. Nothing so much as made a sound without authorization.

Verde was not quite sure how she had gotten authorization. Her research paper on visual and auditory hallucinations certainly wasn’t an obvious step towards getting closer to these Beings.

Dr. Verde was a well-respected neuroscientist. It hadn’t been her first paper on hallucinations, but it was the first to look at such a granular level, how individual neurons within the human brain would light up for no reason whatsoever. Pure randomness. Brains make mistakes all the time, and they don’t have to have a cause.

That was where Mrs. Harvard disagreed.

“Every day, people are deceived,” Harvard had said, only moments after Verde had entered the facility. “Every day, every second, an idea pops into somebody’s head, and there is no traceable origin. Not traceable with modern technology, of course. What caught my attention in your paper, Dr. Verde, was the search for an external event that caused these hallucinations. Ah! But they are not hallucinations. By definition, a hallucination must not have an external cause.”

“The cause can’t be internal,” Verde had told her. “I’ve spent over a decade searching. That was why I looked towards radio waves, or x-rays. There must be something imperceptible that influences us.”

“There is,” Mrs. Harvard had said, as though it were nothing. “There are Beings that have been whispering in our ears.”

That was when they had stepped into the first decontamination chamber.

It was the first of at least eight. Dr. Verde had lost count after that.

Still, after exploring this place for over an hour and a half, she felt as though she couldn’t believe what she was seeing, if she was really seeing anything at all. Struggling to keep step with Mrs. Harvard, Verde kept glancing back and forth, back and forth, rubbing her left thumb over her right wrist like she always did when she was anxious. But she wasn’t anxious. Was she?

She was only anxious when she caught glimpses of dark shapes, almost invisible, lurking on the other side of the glass.

“They don’t like us very much, I’m afraid,” Harvard said. “You can see how they move closer. They can’t see us. They have no eyes. But they can sense. And I’m sure that they are frustrated, unable to touch us with their foul breath.”

Again, Verde glimpsed a shadow, a faint shape on the other side, moving, floating, drifting. “What do they want from us?”

“We don’t know. But they’ve been following us for generations, giving us little sparks of ideas, fractions of a thought, guiding us towards some greater purpose. Sometimes people listen. Sometimes people don’t. For all we know, they’ve been pushing us down a path since the dawn of time, convincing the first men to use tools, convincing the monkeys to get down from the trees, convincing the ancient sea creatures to try walking on land…” Mrs. Harvard’s voice faded, as though she’d been struck by nostalgia. Yet still, her pace down the hall was unwavering and strict.

“How did you catch them?” Verde asked. “How did you get them into the cells?”

“The first step was to detect them, to bring them into a tangible form. The Beings are tricky, on a plane of existence that we hadn’t even considered before. But we tracked them down. Yes, we found them.” She was smug. “Once you know how something works, you know how it breaks. I’m sure you can tell that these cells aren’t made of ordinary glass, and if you were to step inside, you would feel the vibrations of our security system, pulsating out a frequency that keeps them at bay.”

“Fascinating,” Verde whispered.

With a click of the heels, Mrs. Harvard stopped walking and spun to the left, suddenly standing perfectly still. “This is what I wanted to show you. This is the greatest sample we’ve ever captured.”

Dr. Verde’s jaw hung open. She stepped closer to the cell.

Harvard asked, “Do you like what you see? And you are really seeing this time. It isn’t a trick.”

The shadow had a shape. It had arms, legs, a head. It was like the shadow of a person, but it had a form, three dimensions. And it was only a few inches away, on the other side of the glass.

“This Being is different somehow,” Harvard said boldly. “It was a trick to catch, I can tell you that. And, oh, what I would give to get it to speak again.”

Verde recoiled. “Speak?”

She shook her head, tightening her lips. “We had it in captivity for only a few hours before we heard it. All of us. Everybody in the facility, even the folks all the way upstairs. I know that ‘speak’ isn’t the precise word. It spoke to us with thoughts, and the same words entered all of our minds.”

Dr. Verde’s mouth had gone dry. “What were the words?” Out of the corner of her eye, it was watching her intently, shimmering like ripples in a pond.

Mrs. Harvard cleared her throat. “We have what you’re looking for.”

Verde looked back at the shadow on the other side, automatically taking a step backward. “What… What does that mean?”

“It means that they are here by choice,” Harvard answered. “Don’t you see? These shapeless creatures… They whisper into our ears, giving us ideas, guiding us along. If they can communicate with us, even from within their cells…” Her eyes moved to the floor. “I’ll wager that these Beings could escape whenever they wanted to.”

Beyond the glass, still watching intently, the shadow lifted its arm, a mess of blackness wobbling upwards.

And the Being waved.

 

AgeDrop

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“We’re going to have to let some of them die,” Richard said. He was over sixty years old, but he looked no more than thirty.

“We have the resources to keep dosing them with the pill,” Wendy said. “They all believe that we can keep them this way forever.”

“But they’re wrong!” Richard argued. He drooped in his seat.

They were in the tallest building in the world, owned by AgeDrop. This meeting room had mostly been unused, because most of the higher-ups saw no need to stay at the company. They were all wealthy billionaires, traveling the world, forever young. They didn’t care what happened to the business now, now that things had really gotten out of hand.

But it wasn’t just the corporate building that was losing control. Everybody was losing control. Human beings weren’t meant to live this long. The cities were all overcrowded, starvation was shriveling entire countries, and there was hardly any fresh water left on the planet.

The population had reached twenty billion, and threatened to keep growing. It was because people had stopped dying.

It had started twenty-five years ago. It didn’t feel like twenty-five years ago, but it was hard to say if that figure felt too long or too short. On the one hand, it seemed that things had gotten too crazy on Earth for only two and a half decades to have passed. On the other hand, it felt like time had frozen once everyone had stopped aging.

“We have to kill them,” Richard said.

“Which ones?” Wendy asked.

“I don’t care. Anybody!”

They were sitting on opposite ends of the long table in the conference room. Richard thought that it was symbolic, showing how much space they had here. Downstairs, in the lobby, you could scarcely move it was so crowded.

“We can use the side effects,” Wendy said. “We thought it was a problem at first, but now it’ll really help. If anybody misses a single dose of AgeDrop, they’ll wither and die. Simple as that.”

“They only have to skip one pill,” Richard nodded. “Killing them will be easy.”

He’d seen it before. He’d seen it many times, during testing. Back then, they had thought that they were geniuses, perfecting a pill that could stop the aging process. Then they’d realized that the body became dependent on it instantly. If you didn’t have a pill every single day, aging would be accelerated.

And it accelerated a lot.

Richard remembered the first time that he’d seen it, down in the lab. That was when the company was only fourteen scientists, excited to write up some patents and get some funding. They had been working out of a basement, in a university, and one of their test subjects had started… changing. He’d stopped taking the pill after having repeated doses for a week, and he’d started coughing. His face wrinkled and contorted. His hair turned gray in a matter of seconds, until it started falling out.

Within forty-seven seconds, he was dead.

But people didn’t care. It was incredible, but people didn’t care. The AgeDrop pill was so cheap to produce, so cheap to buy, that everyone wanted that dependence, gladly. Why would they need to live a long life when they could live a life eternally young? And when their money ran out, and the pills stopped coming every morning, they would die in a minute.

Anything is better than aging, isn’t it?

“We should let the best people live,” Wendy decided. “As for the weak… the unintelligent… the criminals… We can restrict their access to the pills, and the rest will take care of itself.”

“If we restrict pills in any area, it would be anarchy,” Richard mumbled. “They need those pills to live… They’d murder each other over them if we cut the supply!”

“Good,” Wendy said. “Overpopulation is the problem that we’re trying to solve, isn’t it? We need people to kill each other. There hasn’t been a decent war since this company first started, because the whole population is more worried about appearances than anything else now.”

Yes, that’s right. AgeDrop had ended all of the wars. They had brought about world peace. And still, everybody was miserable, because there weren’t enough homes to fit the population into anymore. It was a miracle that science had managed to keep up, genetically modifying crops to produce more food, and creating filters to make ocean water drinkable. Antibiotics had improved, because infections and diseases spread at ten times the rate in these conditions.

Richard looked out the window, out at the city, out at the endless gridlock on the highways surrounding them.

“Who are we to kill so many people?” he asked.

“We have no choice,” Wendy said. “Earth was never meant to sustain this many people. Before we started, it was believed that the planet couldn’t handle over twelve billion. We’ve almost doubled that, and it’s rising exponentially. Something has to be done.”

“We should send them to Mars,” Richard grunted, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. “There must be something we can do besides a… a slaughter!”

“There is no cure. Their dependence is unbreakable. It would take years of research to find a way to reverse the effects of AgeDrop. We don’t have years. Every inch of this planet is going to be packed like sardines by then.”

“People will starve to death before that happens.”

“They might,” Wendy said. “Or they might not. People are already living on scarce resources, but GMOs are keeping up. And once we can filter ocean water on a larger scale—”

“Why do people still want to live?” Richard asked. “Living on such pitiful rations… Spending hours commuting to work in this insane traffic… And unemployment is through the roof! If we raised the price of the pill…”

“We could raise the price of the pill,” Wendy agreed. “It’s the only thing that we can do. Those who are unemployed will have to face the consequences.”

“I don’t want to kill them,” Richard whispered, shaking his head.

“We have to kill them,” Wendy told him.

Moving Earth

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“Quitting, huh?”

Peter nodded. “That’s right. I’m quitting.”

His manager rubbed his chin, and his eyes narrowed. Peter expected the worst, but his manager’s voice was level and calm when he spoke. “You do know what that means, don’t you? We’ll have to find somebody else to replace you. We’d need to grab some other poor sucker off of the surface. And as for you… well, everybody thinks that you’re dead!”

Peter shook his head, glancing around the office to avoid eye contact. His manager had one of the nicest rooms in the entire facility. It was wide, well decorated, and had the comfiest chairs in the whole place. There was a blank wall behind his desk where a window should have been. But of course, there were no windows. Windows weren’t allowed in the facility. When you worked in a building that went as deep as this place, it was hard to tell if even the top floor was peeking its head out of the Earth.

“I’m sorry,” Peter said. “I simply don’t want this job anymore. It’s tedious, and it’s tiring. I wake up every morning and just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Pushing levers, making calculations… Sometimes it feels like a waste of time.”

“A waste of time!” his manager cackled. “Without your work, the world would cease to function! You’re absolutely essential to this facility!”

“But I can be replaced,” Peter reasoned. “Why is it that I have to spend my life down here? Why not somebody else? I could be doing so much up on the surface!”

“The government gave you an aptitude test, didn’t they? And a personality test, and all sorts of other examinations. You were chosen for a reason.”

“I suppose I’ve changed since then,” Peter said. “I don’t want this anymore.”

His manager studied him, choosing his next words carefully. “We’ve never had a situation like this. Nobody that comes down here has ever gone back to the surface. I can’t emphasize enough that every person you knew has believed you to be dead for over three and a half years. And of course, there’s the confidentiality issue. If you tell anybody about your work in this facility, we’d have a serious problem!”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Maybe I don’t care if the world stops turning. So what if I leave here? So what if I don’t do my job?”

His manager straightened his posture. “You don’t care if the world stops turning? Why, it would be mayhem! Half of the planet would freeze in an endless night while the other half gets scalded by overexposure to the sun! The world must keep turning! And we need you to do it, for everybody’s sake! What exactly is it on the surface that’s so much more important to you than that?”

“I was married, you know,” Peter said coldly. “I loved someone. Maybe I still do. How could I stay down here knowing that she’s somewhere out there still, thinking that I’m long dead?”

“She may have moved on,” his managed said. “And how cruel would it be for the poor woman to have mourned the loss of her husband for so long only to have him come back from the dead? Would it do her any good?”

“It’ll do me some good,” Peter scoffed.

His manager smiled. “Excuse me if I’m being rude, but you sound rather selfish. You don’t want to keep the Earth turning, and you want to see your wife again no matter what circumstances she may be in now.”

“Is it selfish to want to leave this prison of a place?”

“You’re here voluntarily. Everybody is.”

Peter shook his head. “They’re afraid to leave. That’s all.”

His manager smirked. “If they are here voluntarily, then they wouldn’t—”

“You threaten them! You tell them that the world will stop turning, that everybody will die, and it will be their fault! But it’s all a lie! You’ll replace me as soon as I’m out the door!”

“Nobody else feels this way.”

“That’s because I’m the only one who’s figured out what’s going on. I’m the only one thinking straight,” Peter spat. He got out of his seat. “I quit. I’m leaving. Take me to the surface.”

His manager also stood, his face stiff and his movements rigid. “Take the elevator up to the top floor. From there, the exit is the third door on the left, down the hall.”

Peter stared at him. “That’s it? No security? Nothing?”

“Nothing,” his manager said. “As I just said, you’re all here voluntarily. Volunteers can leave as they please.”

Peter shouted, “I haven’t seen real sunlight in years! And you’re telling me that people can leave whenever they want!?”

“If you leave, you cannot come back,” his manager told him. “That is the one condition. The door will lock behind you.”

Peter’s mind was racing, somehow angry and elated at the same time. He was finally leaving this place. His thoughts all came at once, and he couldn’t make clear sense of any of them. “This is goodbye then,” he told his manager. “I suggest that you find a replacement quickly.”

“We will,” his manager said inattentively, returning to his seat behind his desk. “Please refrain from discussing your work here with anybody in the outside world, or we’ll have to do something about it. It wouldn’t be wise for the people to know how the world really turns.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Peter lied, and he left the office.

He went to the elevator and rode it to the top floor. He walked down the hall and stopped at the third door on the left. It was a door like any other, but when he opened it, he was greeted by a blinding light.

It had been three years and two hundred and twelve days since he had last felt the light of the sun. It had been three years and two hundred and twelve days since he had breathed in fresh air that wasn’t processed and filtered through a thousand vents. It had been three years and two hundred and twelve days since he had last smelled the grass, the dirt, the world. All that he had known was the artificial lights, the cold hallways, the drab offices, and the smell of machinery.

Peter took three steps forward, the door closing behind him. He was in a big parking lot, mostly empty. Beyond that, he appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. There was only grass and scattered trees.

He looked back, and the facility appeared surprisingly small. Being almost entirely subterranean, the facility seemed to only be one story high.

He looked at that simple door, a door like any other in the facility. Peter didn’t bother trying the knob. It was surely locked, just as his manager had promised.

He walked away and didn’t look back.

It took only a couple of days for him to locate his wife. Shannon was still living alone, in the apartment that he had left her in all those years ago. She hadn’t remarried. As far as Peter could tell from his research on her social media accounts, she hadn’t even been dating.

When he reached the door of his old apartment, he didn’t hesitate when he knocked.

As Shannon opened the door, her eyes grew wide and afraid. But she looked just as beautiful as she did three and a half years ago.

“Hey,” Peter said. He didn’t know what to say, so he left it at that for now.

“Who are you?” she stared. “You’re dead! But… but you look just like—”

“It’s me,” Peter assured her. “It’s really me.” He stepped into the apartment. It looked entirely different, with every trace of his old possessions removed.

Shannon covered her face with her hands. “This can’t be happening. This can’t be real!”

“It is real,” Peter said, putting on a smile. Something about this didn’t feel right. She was supposed to be happy to see him, wasn’t she? “Here, let’s have a seat in the kitchen,” he said, pointing.

Without a word, Shannon led him to the table. She was trembling, and she might’ve been crying, though Peter couldn’t get a good look at her face when she kept turning away.

When they sat, she was covering her face with her hands. It was frustrating. Peter began, “The government faked my death.” It was horrifically illegal for him to disclose this information, but he saw no other way to explain himself.

“You were in a car crash,” Shannon said. “A terrible one. When I saw you body, your face was so twisted and broken, I couldn’t even be sure that it was you.”

“It wasn’t. I was never in a car crash. The government did it so everybody would think that I was dead.”

“But why!?” Shannon asked desperately. Tears were streaking her cheeks. “Why would they pretend that you were dead!?”

“I was selected to work in a facility,” Peter said. “Not far from here, there is an underground building. There are hundreds of people there, running calculations and pulling levers. They’re doing all of it to keep the world spinning.”

She looked at him blankly. “To keep the world spinning?”

“Earth doesn’t rotate on its own,” Peter told her. “It’s all manpower. It’s the world’s best kept secret.”

“Why did they send you there?”

“I was selected. They thought that I was a person who would best be able to handle the isolation, the working conditions, and the ethical strain.”

Shannon raised her eyebrows. “Ethical strain?”

“Imagine if somebody messed up,” Peter tried to explain. “If anything goes wrong, the Earth might stop moving for a moment. It might even spin backwards if a mistake is bad enough. The physics of it all is quite complicated, but any severe error would be disastrous! And if the workers like me weren’t there to keep the Earth turning, then everybody would soon die! The Earth has to spin!”

She crossed her arms. “Then why did you leave?”

Peter crossed his arms too. “I didn’t want to be the one who did it. I didn’t want to waste my whole life down there. I wanted it to be somebody else. And of course, the government is prepared to replace me in an instant. I left only two days ago, and I’m sure that my position has already been filled. Somebody supposedly killed in another car accident, probably, leaving a new batch of mourning family and friends, all for the supposed greater good.”

“Do many people leave?” Shannon asked.

“No. Not that I’ve ever seen.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why not? Why are you the only one?”

Peter stared at the table in front of him, feeling a twinge of annoyance. “The workers all feel guilty. The government says that everybody is working voluntarily, but the workers are afraid to stop! They want somebody else to take their job! They don’t want to be the necessary sacrifices that keep the rest of the world alive!”

“You were wrong to leave,” Shannon said suddenly. “Every person on Earth was depending on you to stay down there and do your job. But you left.”

“It doesn’t have to be me,” Peter said impatiently.

“But it has to be somebody! So why not you?”

“There are people who want to be down there! And I’m not one of them! Somebody must be better suited for the task! There are workers who don’t have a family. But I left my wife. I left you. And I want you back. I was wrong to leave you in the first place.”

But she shook her head. “I spent years mourning your death. I can’t have you back after that.”

“Why not!?”

“You shouldn’t have left that place!” Shannon insisted. “Imagine what would’ve happened if they hadn’t been able to find a replacement for you?”

“But there are billions of people who could—”

“Somebody is dead because of you!” Shannon exclaimed. “Or at least, his loved ones believe him to be dead! By leaving your job, your replacement had to be killed! You killed somebody!”

“But he’s not actually dead, just like I’m not!”

She was crying again. “You’ve hurt so many people! You need to go back to that facility! You have to get your job back before it’s too late for somebody else!”

“It’s not too late for me!” Peter disagreed. “It’s not too late for us!”

“Go back to that place!” Shannon yelled. “You shouldn’t have left!”

“But I… I can’t go back,” Peter said quietly. “And I left for you.”

“You’re already dead, Peter. You’re dead to me, and to everybody else. Now get out of here before I say something that I regret.”

“But the entire reason that I left was—”

“Get out!” she shrieked.

Without another word, Peter stood and went to the door. What could he do? Where could he go? He went out to the sidewalk and looked around, but he didn’t know what to do next.

Below his feet, the world kept turning, and he wished that it would stop.