FREE AS IN BEER • by Steven Saus

When I enter, Bob’s laughing into his whiskey while Steve’s gesturing wildly, mid-rant. “It only seems that way because we’ve got the attention spans of goldfish.”

I spin a chair around and sit in it backwards. “Speak for yourself.” I catch Alice’s eye, and she starts making my usual. “I’ve got a great mem— Ooooh! Squirrel!” Bob actually chortles — he’s the only person I’ve met who does that — and Steve looks only half-annoyed, so I’ll count it a win.

“C’mon, man,” Steve says. “You’re a scientist. Back me up here.”

Bob takes another sip. “He wants you to admit that we’re all just robots.”

I do my best to raise an eyebrow. “That would be… illogical, Steven.”

Okay, now, he’s annoyed. “Bob’s being a jerk, and dated pop-culture references are only-”

“It’s relevant; they just rebooted Star Trek.”

Both Bob and Steve groan at that, and the conversation goes delightfully along tangents of the benefits and drawbacks of all reboots and sequels across all fandoms until they’ve both consumed enough alcohol to lose the original topic.

I don’t remind them.

I know it’ll come up again.


It takes about two months, and of course, it’s all science fiction’s fault.

I’d stopped watching TV after I had gotten the machine to work. I’d also stopped going to work, but after that first string of wins, I left the machine powered down in my basement. That’s why it catches me by surprise.

It’s almost the same scene as two months ago; Steve gesturing, Bob chortling. “What’s up, guys?”

Bob waves at Alice for me, then explains. “Steve’s saying that Doctor Who and Killjoys ignored the biggest reason why we can’t be in a simulation.”

“More with the Doctor Who episode, but yeah.”

Alice brings my drink, and I’m really thirsty, so there’s a gap where Steve just blurts it out.

“Free will, man.”

I almost choke on the alcohol; Steve takes that as incredulity. “Stick with me here: Both episodes have characters figure out they’re in a simulation because of these high-level discrepancies. Kind of like the Matrix. I guess that makes sense with the Killjoys episode, because they’re real people in a simulation. But for the Doctor, he’s a simulation, too.”

Bob chimes in. “Like a giant game of Sims.”

“Right,” Steve says. “And they figure it out because randomness doesn’t work right and everyone picks the same random numbers in the same order. But because they have free will like we do, it wouldn’t work. They’d change the randomness with every little decision they made.”

My voice is ash. “Just like us.”

“Yeah, and so there’d simply be no way to simulate that — or to predict what numbers people would say. And that randomness means no matter how predictable our brains and bodies might be, there’s always enough randomness in real life to mean that we have free will.”

Both Steve and Bob take a big drink, even though I think Bob was just going along with Steve for the moment.

“That only means,” I say, surprised that today was the day the words were leaving my mouth, but not at the words themselves, which I’d read in the machine’s prediction two months ago, “that we hadn’t figured out all the math.”

Bob looks at me. “Haven’t,” he said.

“Hadn’t,” I repeat, then point on cue at Steve’s cup dropping, just as I had read I would. “Once we discovered that the Planck length was the low limit to the resolution of the Universe, it just became a matter of crunching the numbers hard enough and long enough.”

“But the butterfly ef—”

“Just a matter of how well you know the system and variables. Our brains are great at picking up patterns, and we’ve gotten sophisticated enough that we’re starting to notice the patterns we put in our games in our real life. And that’s starting to come out in our fiction — but we keep labeling it a simulation instead of admitting the truth to ourselves.” I look at both their faces. The grey of their skin tells me they’re starting to get it. “And if we’re not making decisions, and have no free will, then there really isn’t anything worth calling ‘me’ ‘me’ anymore, is there?”

I stand, and raise my glass high. “To the memory of goldfish; our lives would be so much simpler if we had theirs.”

They slowly rise and tink their glasses against mine.

Just as I knew they would.

Steven Saus injects people with radioactive material for fun and profit as his day job. He’s had fiction appear a number of places both online and off. You can find him at

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