Estimated reading time — 16 minutes
Roxy’s Lounge. It was the sort of dimly-lit, mid-century styled bar that was too classy for me by half. In the real world, it’s the kind of place I’d have gone to get shit-faced on overpriced cocktails at a Game Developer’s Conference after-party. But that was in the old days, back when there was still a studio to foot the bill. Thankfully for me—here inside the simulation—money was of no concern.
But it wasn’t just the promise of inebriation that led me through Roxy’s neon entrance that night. It was a name. A name I’d stared at in the user list, incredulously, before walking my ass here from across town.
It can’t be him, I thought. When the hell did they jack him in?
“Oh, Jesus Christ…” the words escaped beneath my breath. The cringe that followed could not be stifled. All I could do was avert my gaze to the ebony hardwood floor and let the involuntary expression run its course. When I unbuttoned my face, there he was, sitting at the bar.
I waved away my holographic display. The translucent overlay of user names, locations, and notes shrunk and vanished into my peripheral vision. What remained was my old lead programmer, wearing a cow print suit and fedora. The infamous cow print suit and fedora, looking as ugly as it was expensive. He was hitting on the bartender. I felt aftershocks of cringe return.
“You son of a bitch,” I said as I approached close enough to be heard over the murmur of other patrons.
He spun around in the barstool and sized me up behind a pair of ruby-tinted aviator glasses. He made an exaggerated frown. “Tell me you don’t look that old in real life,” he said.
“Life comes at you fast. You on the other hand,” I gestured at his entire outfit, “are apparently thirteen years old again.”
He scoffed, and reached out to grab my hand. The handshake quickly became a pat on the back, and then a full-blown hug. I hadn’t seen Lukas, aka Madcow, in nearly ten years. Already memories were flooding back of never-ending crunch nights at Dark Room Entertainment, our game studio. Memories of passing out at our desks, on couches, or occasionally the floor. It all seemed like a lifetime ago, now.
I took a seat next to him, and signaled the bartender.
“What’s the fun of living in a simulation,” he said, “if you don’t peacock it up a bit? Have you even played with the closet options yet?”
“You look like a confused pimp. Anyway, what’s with this about living in a simulation? Buddy, I just work here. And when you got me this job, you didn’t say I’d have to work with you.”
“You think I’d pass on this sort of opportunity just because I—” he stopped. But I could finish the thought for him*. Because I’m still a well-paid programmer with a career.*
The pause turned awkward, until the bartender broke the silence.
“Is this guy giving you a hard time?” she asked. I met her gaze, and must’ve held it a moment too long. She cocked an eyebrow.
“Y-yea,” I finally said, “he’s an asshole.”
She chuckled, and shot Lukas a playful grin.
“Please try not to scare away my customers, Mr. Madcow,” she said.
“A thousand pardons, Ms. Roxy,” Lukas said, and leaned into the bar. “Say, could I convince you to whip up my usual and… a gin and tonic for my colleague here?”
“Sure thing. What sort of work do the two of you do together?” she asked.
“We’re Quality Assurance,” Lukas winked at me. “We’re probably the best-paid beta testers in the world.”
“This world, at least,” I said, but that only earned me a slightly confused look from Roxy as she got to work mixing our drinks.
“Isn’t she something?” Lukas said once she’d stepped out of earshot. “I’ve been giving her my own personal Turing test all evening.”
“I’ll bet you have,” I shook my head. “You know there’s an easier way to tell if she’s real.”
I waved my holographic display back on and pointed to the purple diamond that appeared over all the simulated character’s heads in the overlay. A new translucent box rolled out beside Roxy with her name and background information. I waved it away.
“There’s no fun in that,” Lukas said, “and I’m being serious. This sort of thing, this level of AI… This is the type of stuff I used to dream of working on, back when I was at Dark Room. She really is perfect—everything here is, in case you haven’t noticed. And do you know what the worst part is?”
“What’s that?” I mumbled, staring as Roxy twirled ice cubes around a highball glass.
“The worst part is they didn’t need me to code it. I always thought it would be you and I that built a place like this,” he sighed. “At least we’re still part of it, I suppose.”
Roxy presented our drinks, garnished with lemon and sprigs of rosemary. Lukas took his with an appreciative nod, and sipped.
“Even the goddamn alcohol is perfect,” he said. “Anyway… how’s the testing coming along on your end?”
My reply was cut short by a crash of shattering glass—then screaming. It was guttural, so intense and unexpected that my concentration was immediately broken. I felt a surge of panic, like ice water down my spine. I spun around and saw the lounge table flipped on its side, the man convulsing on the floor. A woman rushed to his side but he grabbed her arms, hurling her backwards.
“Stay the fuck away from me!” he yelled as she staggered back.
I set my drink down too hard, sloshing gin onto the bar. With my hand free I flicked my overlay back on, confirming that the people were also human testers. Lukas was already on his feet, rushing over to help. I followed after.
“I can’t breathe!” the man screamed. “I can’t fucking breathe! Wake me up! None of this is real! It’s freezing! I’m drowning in the fucking pod! Let me out!”
“What happened?” Lukas asked the woman. She looked frightened.
“He was fine a minute ago,” she sniffled. “Suddenly he thinks he’s dying in real life. That I’m not actually real, because I’m not feeling it too, I guess.”
“Sounds like A.S.S.” Lukas said, staring down at the man.
“Ass? “I blurted out, stupidly.
“No, idiot. Did you even read the forms they had us sign? Acute Solipsism Syndrome, it’s a potential risk of total immersion.”
Lukas knelt down beside the man, who was now shivering with his head propped uncomfortably against the leg of a lounge chair.
“Hey, buddy,” Lukas said, “You’re going to be all right. You’re not drowning. You’re breathing just fine in real life. They told us to watch out for these symptoms, remember? It’s nothing serious. You need to get up so you can report it.”
“The techs would be helping him if there was really a problem,” I said to the other tester. It came out more like a question than a statement. She gulped, and nodded. I saw a familiar face over her shoulder.
Mara was sitting back at the bar. Her long dark hair framed a strange expression, something like pity, as she watched the commotion. I thought for sure she’d step in to help—the simulation was her project, after all—but instead she took what appeared to be a martini from Roxy and drank it in a single gulp. After that she said something to Roxy I couldn’t hear, stood up, and left.
“You’re really here,” Lukas reassured our colleague, still playing the role of paramedic. “Try remembering how you got here.”
I looked back at Mara’s empty seat. Roxy was wiping down the counter. I felt a pit of unease settling in my stomach.
Remember how you got here, I thought.
* * * * * *
The elevator ride was so long that I nodded off. I woke up startled, like I’d been falling, and shrank with embarrassment. If the other people packed into the freight car had noticed, they spared me any acknowledgment. The only one looking at me was my own bloodshot reflection in the elevator’s chromed paneling. Jesus, I looked like shit.
But how long had we been descending? I had barely finished unpacking when the Foundation staff knocked on my door. They ushered me downstairs with the other prospective testers, into the basement of the mountain lodge. From there we boarded the elevator. It was minutes ago, but it already felt like yesterday.
I giggled stupidly, remembering the excruciatingly-long load times in most of Dark Room’s games. It became something of an inside joke, to trap our players inside elevators as a new level was loading. It was a necessary evil, to maintain immersion. Some of our more masochistic fans even found it endearing.
“So, is this where you’ve hidden the loading screen?” I said to break to the ice. No response. Either these weren’t gamers, or they too were jetlagged past the point of zombification.
Or maybe I’m just not funny.
“No, that is much further down,” a woman finally said from beside the controls. She faced me and smiled knowingly. Well, at least she looked to be well rested. Flowing black hair draped down her lab coat to the edges of her name tag.
Dr. Mara Droste.
“It’s getting really cold,” a man said. I realized I could see my breath, and wrapped my arms together.
“It has to be cold for the computers to function,” Mara said. “That’s why all the servers are kept so far underground. It saves the Foundation a fortune in maintenance and cooling costs.”
The elevator chimed. When the doors opened, whatever was left of my grogginess vanished in a wave of awe.
Lukas, what the hell have you gotten me into?
We stepped out into what felt at first like an infinite black void punctuated with sharp points of white light. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out wires suspending the lamps from catwalks further above us. As bright and numerous as the lights were, they could barely scrape the volume of the massive underground cavern. Only the faintest impression of light reached the walls, just enough that I could discern the whorl of marbled stone in the distance. Up above the crisscross of man-made catwalks, the vaulted ceiling peaked in utter darkness.
“Welcome to the bunker,” Mara said. She beckoned us down a path of lamp posts, further into the cavern.
It looked as though someone had teleported the guts of some research facility deep into the mountain. Cold steel and concrete were fused to the natural stone with practicality that couldn’t conceal the strange beauty of the caves. We passed through an imposing bulkhead door and across a bridge that spanned a lake of water gleaming like black glass.
“The Foundation really built this place?” said a woman, awestruck. “It must have cost a fortune!”
“Not exactly,” Mara said without breaking stride. “Actually, people have been building this place for thousands of years. Ancient people explored these grottoes and discovered their salt deposits. They mined it for centuries, all throughout the dark ages, until it was sealed.”
“Why was it sealed?” I asked.
“The records are unclear about that. What we do know is that the Soviet government excavated it to use as a fallout shelter, in the event of nuclear war. We have them to thank for most of the infrastructure, including the geothermal extractors. After the cold war it was sealed again, until we purchased it. So, to finish answering the first question—yes, it did cost a fortune.”
I followed along with the tour, wondering just who was investing so much capital into the Foundation for the sake of virtual reality technology. Sure, we’d have loved to get our hands on it at Dark Room. But even at the height of our success, we were in no position to buy a fucking underground Russian base. Something didn’t add up.
Still, the pay was on a scale barely fathomable to someone who teaches game design to college students. And there was something else, almost nostalgic. It felt like whatever this was, it was a chance to get in on the ground floor of the next new thing. If this proved to be groundbreaking, maybe I could make a name for myself in the Industry again.
We came at last to a second massive vault, clearly reshaped by some heavy machinery into a smooth, perfectly rectangular warehouse. Fluorescent lights shone through grated catwalks that ran above dozens of stainless-steel cylinders, each of them barely larger than a person. The soft thrum of machinery reverberated throughout the room. Technicians scurried between computer terminals along the outer walls.
“Come,” Mara beckoned our group up the stairs onto the catwalks. “The first group has already been at it for a week. Have a look. Others will be joining you inside the simulation.”
From atop the walkway we could see down into the cylinders. Many were empty, the rest held people floating upright in some kind of liquid. They wore breathing masks, not unlike scuba regulators, and appeared to be unconscious.
“The pods are total sensory deprivation,” Mara continued, “closer to suspended animation, in fact. In that state, your brain can interpret sensory stimuli from the simulation as a genuine substitute for, well, what you’re experiencing now.”
Mara looked down at the occupied tanks. “They are in a whole other world, now. The town we’ve constructed for you to test is just the beginning. There really is no limit to the worlds we can build…”
When Mara looked up, she seemed to read the expressions on our faces. “Everything is perfectly safe,” she added quickly. “We have a full medical team on site, 24/7. I’ve been immersed several times myself, and will be joining you all inside. Does anyone have any concerns?”
“We’re probably already inside,” a woman mused. Everyone just slowly turned to her, and she explained. “Think of what we’re on the threshold of here. If we can ever truly run simulations of reality, and there’s only one true reality, then the odds are we’re in some form of simulated reality right now.”
Someone objected, and the group seemed to explode immediately into a deep philosophical debate on the topic. The term Quantum Hall Effect was spat back and forth quite a bit. I more or less capped out at high school physics, and tuned the discussion out. I just stared at the half-naked people below, floating in some kind of lucid dream.
Fuck it, I thought. What have I got to lose?
* * * * * *
There was no Hell, until we built it.
It’s what Mara had said to Roxy, during our colleague’s panic attack. I’d asked Roxy out of curiosity, after the situation had calmed down.
“Do you know what she meant by that?” I inquired.
“No idea,” Roxy said, and then asked if I wanted another drink.
“I really should get back to work,” I declined.
“All right then, good luck with the beta test,” she winked at me.
I left Roxy’s alone, to continue my nighttime exploration. There were no rules to this job, per se. We just had to spend our time in this place however we saw fit, and report any flaws in the experience.
I decided that to give myself some structure, I would pace out the boundaries of this town. It was modeled as a quaint little resort settlement in the mountains. The street outside Roxy’s followed a bend around the edge of town. Storefronts faced a low cobblestone wall on the other side of the road. Beyond that, the hill sloped down into a procedurally-generated forest of pine trees that stretched out to a foggy horizon. It was clearly based on the real terrain above the bunker, but the town itself was a work of fiction.
I strolled from street light to street light, dragging my fingers along the rough texture of the stone wall. A mild breeze rustled the silhouettes of trees and brushed gently over me. I closed my eyes and breathed the fresh, evergreen scent in deeply. Every minutiae of sensation was as real as anything I’ve ever experienced.
I daydreamed about the generation of games that would surely spawn from this technology. Even Dark Room’s most immersive VR titles would seem primitive and obsolete going forward.
Suddenly, sharply, the breeze became uncomfortably cold. Some primal sense told me to snap out of the daydream. Something was wrong.
Mara’s cryptic words came back to me.
I realized I’d been walking in darkness. The streetlights were out. I turned around, confused, to see I’d passed half a dozen blown-out lights without noticing it. The storefronts too, were vacant and dark. I wondered if I’d stumbled into some unfinished area. The sound of the wind had changed, too.
No, not the wind—the trees.
Behind me, where the streetlights still worked, the trees stirred in the gentle breeze. But in the dark area they stood perfectly still, as if frozen. I was already thinking of how to word this in the bug report when I realized I wasn’t alone. Up ahead, leaning against a broken streetlight, was the shadow of a man.
I walked towards him, hoping for some validation that he too was seeing the same thing. But I hesitated halfway between my streetlight and his. Something was wrong with him. He was twitching strangely, as if caught in the throes of some spasm. For a moment I thought of the tester at Roxy’s, convulsing in pain. But no, this was different. This man was sobbing.
“The cold got in,” he wept in a raspy voice, seemingly to himself.
I was about to ask if he needed help when the clouds parted, bathing us both in moonlight. My blood ran cold. The old man was withered and emaciated, little more than a skeleton. He wore nothing but the same neoprene shorts and nylon harness we were all given in real life, before entering the pods. The vertebrae of his spine jutted sickeningly against the pale, glistening flesh of his back.
In disbelief, I waved for my holographic overlay. Nothing happened. I needed to know if this was real — if he was real. I waved again, and then again. It wasn’t working.
Impossible, I thought, and kept trying. My frantic gestures must have gotten the old man’s attention, because he finally raised his head. Long strands of white, wispy hair parted to reveal the same breathing apparatus we all wore. Where his oxygen tube would be was only a torn, tattered rubber scrap. His bloodshot eyes opened wide with shock. They fixed on me with the same surprise and horror that I must have been reflecting back at him. I could hear his tortured breathing intensify.
“You shouldn’t be here!” he finally snarled. He lunged towards me. Stupefied, I was too late to react. His wet, freezing hands found my neck in a choking grasp.
“You need to wake up!” he growled, and tightened his grip. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t scream. Only panic. I tried to pry his hands off my throat but they were too slick with that same goopy liquid from the pods. My hands slipped down his wiry arms, and that’s when I noticed it—that stupid fucking tattoo.
Dethsqwurl: a squirrel holding a katana in shitty black ink.
Madcow had gotten me so drunk at the launch party for our first game that he was able to convince me to get that damned thing. It was my own alter ego on my forearm, to match his. And there it was, blurry and faded—but unmistakable—on this skin and bones man. He had my tattoo. I stared at his face, even as I struggled to breathe. The recognition washed over me in a wave of cold terror that swept my sanity away.
It was me.
He was me.
The absurdity of my situation gave me a sudden burst of strength—dreamlike vigor—and I hurled the ancient doppelganger off. It staggered, and I gasped for air. Just when I thought it would charge at me again, something flashed in the distance. Suddenly, just for a moment, the sky was brighter than daytime. The abrupt brilliance stunned the creature, and it stared, horrified, at the source beyond the horizon.
“No…” it whimpered at the lingering glow of the explosion. I seized the moment and ran. As I did, a sound like the crack of thunder smashed through everything. More explosions burst across the horizon like lightning. Every illuminating flash revealed the town as something else—shattered ruins, desolate and decayed.
“They never finish it!” the creature screamed. “They’ll never finish it!” Its cries became an incoherent wail of rage and agony, and then disappeared entirely in the roaring boom.
When at last I made it back to the well-lit area, the entire cacophony ceased. There was only the gentle sound of the breeze, and a slight tinnitus in my ear. My overlay finally responded. I kept running as I searched Mara’s location on the user list.
* * * * * *
I found her on the rooftop deck of the tallest building in town. She was sitting on the ledge, smoking a cigarette and sipping wine from a crystal stem. She greeted me without taking her eyes off the panorama of the town laid out before her.
That I was a frantic, gibbering wreck gasping to catch my breath didn’t seem to faze her. I tried to explain what had just happened. She only faced me to refill her glass from a bottle resting beside her. Her wind-tousled hair framed that same, pitying expression she wore at the bar.
“What the fuck was that thing?” I demanded.
She shrugged dismissively, and turned away again. She seemed to be staring at the shadowy part of town I’d just fled from.
“An anomaly,” she said.
Her lack of concern was exasperating. Hadn’t she been listening? Didn’t she care?
“I want out,” I said firmly. “Wake me up, now.”
She took a drag off her cigarette, then flicked ashes off the side of the roof.
“I’m afraid that isn’t possible,” she said.
I took a deep breath, trying to contain my anger.
“Dr. Droste,” I said slowly. “Mara, I’m sleeping in one of your pods. I know you can revive me.”
She seemed to find this amusing. But there was something else cracking in her persona, as if she were trying to cope with something herself. Was she drunk?
“I already did revive you,” she finally said, “a long time ago.”
“What are you talking about?” I said incredulously. “We’re right here. We literally just started.”
“This instance just started,” she said as if she were clarifying the situation. My confused expression must have told her otherwise. “It’s all so lifelike isn’t it?” she continued, gesturing across the entire landscape. “We had you testers to thank for that. It was an iterative process. Every time we re-ran the simulation your experiences helped us tune it just a little bit more. We got a little closer to perfection, every time.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I gritted my teeth. Mara was supposed to be the one professional we could all rely on. She was our lifeline. We trusted her. Now, she was spouting nonsense. “How can I be in the simulation right now talking to you, if you’ve already woke me up?”
“Because you’re an instance, too,” she said, “a copy, of your original mind.” She finished her cigarette and tossed it away. “That’s why you had to be in those pods as long as you were. A frozen scan, we called it.”
“Why…” I began to mutter, but I felt a shortness of breath. I was beginning to feel dizzy, dissociated. This couldn’t be right.
“It was the entire purpose of the Foundation,” she said. “It’s one thing to build a perfect virtual reality. Our benefactors wanted us to prove it was possible to upload minds to it. They wanted to live forever, on the inside.”
She went on, but I couldn’t follow her jargon, something about discovering the neural correlates of consciousness. “No—” I cut her off in a snarl. My head was swimming now. “I mean if this is all true, why are you telling me this?”
“It’s not like it matters anymore,” she shrugged. “Every time the simulation iterates it deletes the previous instances and begins again with fresh copies.”
My thoughts flashed back to those long nights at Dark Room. Sitting at my desk, pacing the hallways, crashing on the couch in the break room, all the while strung out over the latest build of our game. The polished final product was the result of countless iteration. Meetings at the whiteboard, debugging and redesign, again and again, version after version. That was just to make a videogame. But something as complex as this place? How many versions had it taken to get this far? Dozens? Hundreds?
“So, you’ve murdered us,” I said, confronting her gaze, “over and over again…”
“I suppose that’s one way of looking at it,” Mara said.
I wanted to scream what other way is there!? But knew it was futile. There was nothing for me to do here with all my anger and confusion. I decided to leave Mara alone and do the one thing I could, which was to march back to Roxy’s and get mind-numbingly drunk as soon as possible.
I was about to head downstairs when I remembered something, and turned back to her.
“Why did you say what you did back at Roxy’s?”
“What?” it was her turn to look confused.
“You said there was no Hell until we built it. If this place is so perfect, why did you say that?”
She shook her head, and looked again to the dark, static part of town.
“The anomalies…” she said, “you’re not the first to see one. But I… I don’t remember them. Not from previous iterations. I should be able to remember…” She hung her head down, and closed her eyes. “I wasn’t lying back at the bunker, when I told you I’d been immersed before. I’m as much a copy as you are. The only difference is that I scan in regularly. I should remember every previous version, unless… unless I’m not around to scan in anymore.”
She took in a deep breath, and shuddered. “And a glitch on that scale doesn’t just happen randomly, or overnight. It’s a sign the hardware is failing—has been failing, for some time. But our servers were custom-built for billionaires that want to live forever. They’re kept deep underground in perfect conditions. They could run for a thousand years, maybe longer.”
“If nobody were left to turn them off…” I said, connecting the dots. She turned to me with fresh tears streaking her face.
I thought of the bunker, the frigid void of empty caverns deep beneath the mountains. I thought of terminals flashing, attended only by withered skeletons. Geothermal extractors whirred behind ancient and ominous Soviet bulkheads, sealed now and forever against some outside apocalypse. And somewhere deeper still, within some still-running computer, my own long-dead ghost was still trying in vain to wake me up from a simulation stuck in an infinite loop.
Out past Mara’s gaze, the dark patch of town seemed to grow larger, the ink-black tendrils of its desolation spreading from one streetlight to the next. The wind became chill, and with it came a distant sound—faint, but familiar—like the wails of something lost and afraid.
I waved open my holographic display and began a bug report:
Credit: Stephen Miller
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