“Hey. Welcome to the party!” the formerly disembodied voice greeted.
“He’s all yours Zeke,” answered Lys, who was already halfway out the door.
“Hi,” I awkwardly spoke up, weakly waving my hand.
“The name’s Ezekiel Eliott, but everyone just calls me Zeke.”
“Jackson Ridley,” I replied, holding out my hand. His enthusiastic handshake practically ripped my arm off my body. “Just Jackson though, not Jack or anything else.”
Zeke was big. He definitely lived up to his booming voice. Zeke stood a towering 6’2, looking down at me. He had short black hair and a dark skin tone. He was incredibly muscular and looked like he could take just about anyone in a fight.
“Alright then Jackson, welcome to HQ.”
The room, and the hallway leading to it were very plain. The halls had been a not-quite-white shade of gray, while this room was an equally muted shade of light blue. Everything here was simplistic and angular. The walls and floor were perfectly flat and lacked in any sort of detail. They didn’t seem to be made out of any specific material, they simply existed as flat shapes.
Zeke lead me to a chair near an impressive computer workstation. No less than six screens decorated the space in front of his seat. These screens were not computer monitors. They existed as completely flat surfaces floating in the air before him.
My chair was square and boxy. It resembled a wooden chair in structure, but it was a plain solid shade of brown. It’s appearance lacked any sort of texture or wood grain. Despite this appearance however, it was not uncomfortable. It somehow felt quite soft and cushioned. Zeke’s chair was larger, taking on a reclined ‘captain’s chair’ like structure, though similarly featureless.
“So,” I said trying to break the ice, “Are you going to explain what’s going on?”
“Wha--? Oh right, Lys didn’t tell you anything,” Zeke shook his head, “That girl can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.” I couldn’t help but laugh at his statement. From the brief time I’d known her, I could certainly see where he was coming from.
“Okay, so first thing’s first,” Zeke took a deep breath, “Everything you know the world to be is a lie. This world is actually a complex computer simulation.”
He paused, expecting a reaction. I raised my eyebrows giving him a ‘go on’ kind of face.
“Yeah, given the day you’ve had, I guess that’s not much of a surprise.” He looked disappointed and quietly added, “I always look forward to seeing the shock factor on peoples faces though.”
“So if everything here is fake, why are we here?”
“Come on, do you have to jump right to the hard questions?” He sighed, “We don’t know. We’re prisoners though, unable to leave of our own free will. What’s worse is that most of the population has no idea they’re being held captive. They likely never will.”
“But you guys do. Why is that?”
“Because we’re the ones trying to break out of this prison. We’re determined to make a way out.”
“So what, you’re a bunch of computer hackers?”
“Yes, in both the correct and incorrect usage of the word.”
“We’re both enthusiastic programmers and security crackers,” I gave him a puzzled expression, “You know what, never mind, that’s not important. We’re hackers trying to liberate humanity. The small portion trapped in here anyway.”
“What do you mean ‘small portion’?”
“It’s not the whole world who’s trapped here, just the city. Everything outside the city... it’s all fake.”
Now that was a crazy thought. I’d grown up in this city, only leaving it once or twice when I was younger. Now that I thought about it though, I didn’t actually know anyone who claimed to have lived anywhere else.
“I’ve met tourists though. And I swear my parents took me out of town when I was younger.”
“All fake. Just like I said. The tourists, anyone you encountered out of town, any sights you saw, they’re all just constructs of the System. Most people you meet in the city are real though. It’s the ones you don’t talk to much that you should question. Some of the shopkeepers or the police. Anyone you have a minimal interaction with could be part of the simulation.”
“So anyone could be watching?”
“Nah, they’re mostly harmless stand-ins for real people. They’re just programmed for basic interactions, not spying. They can be commandeered by the System if needed though. Like those SWAT-like guys that were following you.”
“Enough about them though,” Zeke continued, standing up and stretching his arms overhead. “Time for a history lesson.”
As he stretched, I noticed an odd black outline around his right leg.
“Yeah, I guess that’s history too.” He must have noticed my gaze because he chimed in without warning. “It’s fake too, just like everything else in this place.”
He motioned from his knee down to the floor. Now that he was pointing it out, I noticed that the black outline cut across his leg just above that knee. “It’s just a copy of the other leg. I lost the real one fighting some Maintainers about five years ago. This copy lets me walk around in here, but I can’t take it outside the building. If I did, I’d risk being flagged as a rogue like you and Lys were.”
“What are maintainers? And wait, are they going to track me down or something?” I said, feeling uneasy.
“Relax, the flag will wears off when they lose track of you. You’ll be fine when you go home later. And the Maintainers, they’re our enemies. System administrators that keep the population subdued and the rogue elements in check. Oh, and they’re human too. Sort of.”
“They’re human? Why are they helping keep us here?”
“They aren’t stuck in the simulation. We don’t know why, but they are the ones keeping us here. And they’re only sort of human. They’re all genetically modified.”
He paused, running his hand over his short hair. He walked to the far wall and started staring at it. I got up from my chair to get a better view. I then realized that what I thought was the back wall of the room was actually a window overlooking another room. The room below was just as drab as this one. Without looking carefully or catching a glare on the almost invisible glass, it was hard to even notice that it wasn’t a wall.
“At least that’s my theory.”
“About the Maintainers. They all look incredibly similar and are in peak physical and mental condition. You don’t want to go toe-to-toe with one,” I glanced at Zeke’s leg and wondered if he was trying to be funny. “Fortunately, it seems like they forgot how to actually administer the System long ago.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the System has a ton of security tools and functions. We’ve even been able to tap into a few of them on occasion. The Maintainers don’t though. My guess is they’ve forgotten how.”
“How could they forget about something like that?”
“Who knows. They’ve had a long time to forget though. You’ve lived in this simulation all your life. So have I. So have our parents. So did our grandparents. We don’t know how far back it goes, or whether the first generation even knew they were imprisoned.”
“And you guys haven’t managed to brake out yet?”
“Actually, that effort only began recently. Are you ready for that history lesson now?”
“I don’t know, give me a minute to process everything.”
“While you do that, why don’t you come over here.” He waved, motioning me toward the window.
As I approached, the room below came into view. Several long rows of workstations similar to Zeke’s lined the room. Two screens per person, with at least fifty people typing away, if not more. I stood mesmerized at the sight. They all kept perfectly focused on their work. They didn’t move or blink much. They just typed on their keyboards, which appeared to be drawn onto the surface of the desks they sat at.
“They’re trying to break the System’s encryption. Everything it does is encrypted, and that encryption changes every so often too. If they can crack it, we’ll have our way out.”
“So this is what they do all day?”
“And night! In shifts of course, but hell if they’ll sleep when we tell them to. This is how they choose to spend their free time. By networking their PPN’s, they can combine their computing power and progress more quickly.”
“Okay, I keep hearing that term. What the heck is a PPN?”
“Personal Processing Node. Everyone has one. It’s an independent computer tied to us in the real world. It’s responsible for handling all the calculations and rendering of your immediate surroundings. It handles all your sensory input/output as well. Basically, anything that you see or hear, the System offloads that work onto your PPN that way it can focus on managing the simulation as a whole.”
“Uh,” Zeke kept going. He seemed to be on a roll with his explanation. He didn’t notice my confusion.
“Every PPN uses the same encryption keys for its network traffic. We cracked that a long time ago though, and we can use it to send fake information.”
Zeke rushed over to his computer and tapped around on one of his many screens. “By sending out false information, we can trick the PPN’s of people nearby into thinking something is real.” He gave the screen another tap, and suddenly a hot mug of coffee appeared in his hand. “The System then error corrects and makes that object or modification available for everyone to see.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. Once Zeke got going, his enthusiasm on the subject was downright scary.
“So yeah, with the help of that trick, and a few simple lines of code, almost any object can become real.” He paused and took a big swig of coffee from his new mug. “Ah, that hits the spot. Thanks buddy, I bounced this one off of you.”
“You’re welcome?” Zeke gave a hearty laugh at my answer.
“So, now that I’ve told you about PPN’s, lets have a look at yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just a simple scan is all. You see, you shouldn’t have been able to see Lys earlier. At least not as she looks now. To anyone outside of our group, she should look like an inconspicuous brunette, much to her dismay.”
“So what’s different about me?”
“That’s what the scan will tell us.” He tapped a few more items on his screen, and suddenly a cylinder appeared next to his workstation. It stretched from the ceiling to the floor, and had an opening in the front. Like every other item in the room, it had no texture or detail beyond its dark gray color.
“You know, if you painted that thing chrome,” I said, pointing to the cylinder, “it would have sort of a 1960’s sci-fi thing going for it.”
“I suppose it would,” he said with a heavy laugh. “We try to keep things minimalistic around here though. It frees up more PPN resources for other things, like generating these computers. Alright now, climb inside,” Zeke said as I stared at the cylinder. “It won’t hurt at all, it’s just going to probe your senses.”
I stepped through the cutout in the front of the cylinder. I don’t usually get claustrophobic, but the eerie feel of being in this dark tube gave me sudden chills.
“You’re going to experience a range of sensory input. Brace yourself, it can be alarming at first.”
“That’s the spirit. Starting the process... now.”
As soon as he said the word, all remaining light in the tube vanished. No, all of my senses had stopped. I couldn’t see or hear anything. It was odd, and somewhat scary. I felt alone, and I suddenly understood how people could go crazy in isolation.
The sensory deprivation only lasted a moment before I was overwhelmed with bright imagery. Light flashed in all manner of colors, like strobe lights dancing around me.
A series of audio tones played. At first they were simple tones, scaling up and down like a hearing test. They began to get more complex and almost musical.
And then came smell and taste. At the same time I was overwhelmed by the smell of flowers and the taste of blueberry pie. The two did not go well together. Further smells and tastes appeared, changing every few seconds, but never matching each other.
A feeling rushed over my skin. A slightly ticklish sensation, running over ever inch of my skin, covered or not. It grew from a slight tickle to a deep massage and back again. While it scaled in pressure, it also changed temperature, getting hotter and colder at times.
The unusual feelings continued until all at once they hit me hard. The smell of an outhouse, the taste of puke. Loud screeching sounds and a complete whiteout of my vision. My bottom half froze while my top half sweltered. I felt tickled in some spots and beaten in others. It all ended abruptly with what felt like a punch to the face.
“I thought you said it wouldn’t hurt.” I said as my senses returned to me.
“Would you have gotten in there if I’d said that it ‘won’t hurt much’? Besides, it’s gone away now, hasn’t it?”
After he pointed it out, I realized that all of the pain I’d felt at the end of the probe was completely gone. I rubbed my arm, expecting the muscle to be sore, but it was like none of it had ever happened.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I sighed, “So what does the test say?”
“It’s not good,” he said grimacing. “It’s like I feared, your PPN’s damaged.”
My heart sank. “Am I going to die?”
“What? No. I can fix you.” He smirked. “Your PPN seems to have a section of bad memory. When it tries to read these damaged areas, there’s a chance it can jump over and read a different section.”
Again, his words taunted me. I understood the terminology, but could never seem to grasp its context in relation to the System.
“This is how you were able to see Lys earlier,” he continued. “This hardware fault caused you to miss the information that was supposed to conceal her from your senses.
“There was an explosion. I heard it, but I couldn’t see it until I bumped into her a few minutes later.”
“So you physically touched her? Huh. It was a shared sensory experience. I’d have to assume that your contact with her caused your PPN to read bits of her perception program.”
“And suddenly I could see what she saw?”
“Pretty much. And hear things too, remember my voice?”
“Alright, so you said you can fix it?” I asked desperately.
“Sort of. I can write a program that will work around the damaged section and prevent its use.” He paused, looking for the right words.
“But the change is permanent. I can do one of two things. Your first choice is that I can completely block off the damaged areas. You’d be one hundred percent better, but you could never run any modified programs on your PPN.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m saying that you could go back to your regular life and never be bothered by this stuff again. I can’t make you forget that this world is a simulation, but given a few years, today will just become a distant memory to you.”
“And it would be permanent?”
“You wouldn’t be able to change your mind about it. You’d never be able to come back here or see the truth about the System again.”
“Okay, what’s my other option?”
“I can fix it so that the damaged memory only has a softer block on it. With practice, you’d be able to control it and cause the errors at will. The potential usage for an exploit like that is enormous. You could join us and be a big help to our rebellion.”
“Which, based on today, I assume is dangerous?”
“Every single day. There’s no in-between option though. Without the practice, you would likely experience more issues like today. Even laying low, within a few months you’d risk getting flagged again. They’d hunt you down and terminate you.”
“Ouch,” I answered. “So basically I can either go back to my life, knowing that it’s very meaning is futile.”
“Or you could join our cause and risk your life for the greater good.” Zeke looked toward the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to force all this onto you.”
“It’s alright. Is it safe to take a bit and think it over?”
“As long as you don’t take too long. The failure must have happened recently, otherwise you’d have been discovered long ago. If we don’t act soon though, it could fail again.”
“Okay. It’s getting late. I want to go home and sleep on it.”
“Sure. I’ll have Lys contact you tomorrow. Sorry, I don’t think we should delay any longer than that.” He stood up and walked toward the door. “Follow me, I’ll walk you out.”
We walked down the long hall, but turned toward a door before reaching the garage I had entered through.
“That door will take you right out the front door of the fire station. I can call a cab for you if you’d like.”
“Nah, I’m gonna walk it. A good long walk will give me time to think.”
“Alright then, if you say so. Take care man.” Zeke waved as I opened the door.
“Thanks. See you tomorrow then.”
Bright light shined in from outside. It was much brighter than the lighting inside their headquarters. I held my arm up to block the sun as I stepped out the door.