“Hey,” Max says. “Got some bad news. We’re shutting down.”
I stare at him, slack-jawed. His tongue lolls out, and his tail gives a vigorous wag.
“I hate to harsh your day,” he says, “but I thought you might want a few minutes to settle accounts.”
I glance around. We’re alone in the dog park off Barker Road. The sun is high and hot in a deep blue sky, and a soft June breeze is pushing the leaves around on the gnarled old oak that stands between us and the parking lot. A drool-soaked tennis ball sits in the grass, right where Max dropped it.
Right before he started talking.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “You’re gonna need to…”
Max drops to his haunches and grins up at me.
“Gotcha,” he says. “Background. This?” He makes a sweeping gesture with one paw. “It’s a simulation.”
I look around again. Definitely nobody watching.
“Yeah. You know what a simulation is, right?”
I nod. I’m not sure I do, but I don’t want to look stupid in front of my dog.
“Good,” he says, “because you’re in one. It’s been running for most of a year now. Going really well, honestly, but we’re out of money. I thought I might be able to get an extension based on some of the data we’ve collected on ecosystem collapse. Ran it all the way up to the Section Head, but… well, long story short, he wasn’t impressed. So, like I said, we’re shutting down. Sorry.”
I sit down in the grass and pull my knees to my chest. Max comes over to me, pushes his nose under my hand, then settles down against me as I scratch behind his ears.
“But…” I say.
He closes his eyes. His tail beats a steady rhythm against the grass.
“What’s it all about?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I mean, what are you saying? That none of this is real?”
“Come on, Doug. What’s real? You think, therefore you are, right? That’s as real as any of us can be sure of. Look, there’s probably a chance that my level of reality is actually somebody else’s simulation. Worrying about whether you’re at the top of the tree or not just isn’t productive.”
A bird leaps into the air from the top of the oak. It beats its wings as it climbs, spirals once around, then pixelates and disappears. When I look down again, the tree itself is losing resolution.
“So,” I say. “What do I do now? Should I be praying or something?”
Max opens his eyes long enough to roll them at me, then closes them again.
“If you want to, I guess. I should tell you, though, that I didn’t put any gods into this run. Theistic simulations generally don’t give you much useful data. Hard to learn anything about the migratory patterns of emus when you’ve got pillars of fire and whatnot running around all over the place.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I guess it would be.”
The breeze is picking up now, pushing my hair back from my face and ruffling the thick fur along Max’s spine. I look up. A fat white cloud scuds across the sky, straight overhead. As I watch, it freezes in place, then breaks into a fractal pattern of smaller and smaller clouds before disappearing.
“I don’t think…”
The sun blinks out, leaving behind a jet-black sky filled with bright white stars. Then one by one, they begin to disappear as well.
“By the way,” Max says, “if you’re wondering whether I’ve been laughing at you behind your back since you got me home from the shelter, the answer is no. Max was just your simulated dog until five simulated minutes ago. I went back and forth between talking dog and burning bush when I decided to give you a heads-up on this. I figured you’d take it better from the dog. Did I make the right call?”
He lifts his chin. I rub my knuckles along the underside of his jaw.
“Sure,” I say. “I mean, I guess so. I think I’m taking it pretty well, don’t you?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Definitely. Versions of me are laying this on every sentient in the sim right now. Half of them are running around in circles, clucking like chickens and smearing food all over their bodies. You’re doing great.”
The last few stars wink out, and we’re left in a dark so black that I might as well be blind. The wind dies down. Max noses my hand again.
“Hey,” he says. “Who said you could stop scratching?”
I start in on the back of his neck. He sighs a long, satisfied dog sigh, and I suddenly realize that I can’t feel the grass anymore. It’s just me now, and Max, and a silent black nothing.
“So this is it, right?” I say. “Nothing left to go but me?”
“Actually,” Max says, “you should already be gone by now. So should I, for that matter. What’s up with that?”
“Well,” I say. “Have you considered that maybe you and your simulation were all actually just a part of a bigger simulation that I was running? Maybe this whole scene was just my way of seeing how you’d react to your simulation shutting down.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I am. I have no idea what’s going on.”
Max presses against me. His fur is soft and warm, and I can feel his breath on the bare skin of my leg. We float together in companionable silence, in a world without form, and void.
After an unknowable time, a light appears in the distance.
It flickers and grows as we watch.
“Huh,” Max says. “I wonder…”
I can see that there’s something below us now, the vaguest hint of a dark, roiling vastness. I look up.
By ones and twos, then all at once, the stars reappear.
Edward Ashton is the author of more than a dozen short stories, as well as numerous technical articles and medical texts. His fiction has appeared most recently in Daily Science Fiction, Perihelion, and Escape Pod. You can find his work online at smart-as-a-bee.tumblr.com.