The fire truck wails, lights blinking to life.
As all the cars on the freeway move over, I get right behind the emergency vehicle and ride its wake, passing all the suckers who pulled over.
A voice from my phone speaks. It’s one of my customers. “Is that an ambulance? Are you driving right now?”
“No, no,” I say. “The ambulance is parked across the street. Sorry it’s so loud. Anyway, I think you’ve made a fantastic decision. Joining Pyramid Schematics is the smartest thing you’ll ever do. Once you’re your own boss, working from home in your pajamas, you’ll kick yourself for not doing it sooner. What was your credit card number again?”
I get his info, charge him the membership fee, and send out the standard Getting Started email telling him how rich he’ll be once he gets enough other people to join.
He has no idea that the only person who really gets rich quick is me.
As I continue driving, something weird happens. The fire truck suddenly disappears, then just as suddenly reappears. Like an eye blink. Huh. I shake my head. Must just be my imagination.
Thanks to the fire, I end up getting to the conference early. As I walk through the door, someone calls my name.
I turn around and see an absolutely gorgeous blonde. She looks somewhat familiar. Maybe she’s a client. I flash her a smile. “Hey.”
“Why haven’t you called?” she asks. “I thought we had something special.”
Not a client, then. Some people stop to look at us. It wouldn’t do to make a scene.
“We do have something special!” I insist. “I wanted to call, but my stupid assistant lost your number. I’m going to fire her the next time I see her.” I don’t actually have an assistant, but she doesn’t need to know that.
“So you meant everything you said last time?”
“Absolutely! How about we head back to my room where we can discuss this in private?” I put my hand on her shoulder. She flickers like the truck did before. It happens so fast, I can’t be sure it really happened, but I’m beginning to wonder if I just had a stroke or something.
Later, when I take the stage, I’m feeling like a million bucks. I give my usual spiel. Claim everyone in the auditorium can become rich beyond their wildest dreams and so forth. I’m in the middle of telling them how they can get rich by buying houses on the other side of the country sight unseen, paying someone else to fix them up, then selling them for twice what they paid, all while wearing their underwear. True, most people lose money trying to do this, but I’m not going to mention that. I only ever share the success stories, no matter how rare they are.
Suddenly, the entire audience flickers like a video with a bad connection.
This time, they don’t come back.
“What the? Where did everybody go? What happened?” I spin around, but don’t see anybody, my voice echoing in the empty auditorium.
“Sorry about that.” A geeky man appears out of thin air. “Just some technical difficulties. We’ll have everything fixed in a jiffy.”
“What are you talking about? How can the real world have technical difficulties?”
“Because this isn’t the real world. You’re inside a simulation.”
That throws me for a loop. But since my entire audience just suddenly disappeared, it does seem like the most likely explanation. “Why am I in a simulation?” I ask. “And who are you?”
“I’m Arnold Ingersoll,” the man says. “I’m part of the simulation. Think of me as the tech support AI. And as to why you’re here, well… let’s just say there are certain people who are a net drain on society. People who don’t really contribute anything and just make things worse for others. Jerks, in other words. The real world is better off without these people, so they get put in simulations like this one.”
“Did you just call me a jerk?” I get up in his face.
I give him a shove. Or try to, anyway. My hands go right through him.
“I told you,” he says. “I’m just a simulation. Like everything else here.” My audience suddenly reappears, but they’re all frozen in place. “There, all fixed. Now, would you prefer to remember all this, or do you want to go back to believing this is real?”
I think for a second. Now that I know this is a simulation, I could do whatever I want. I could be a jet pilot. I could punch sharks in the face. I could have my way with any woman in the world.
On the other hand, it wouldn’t be real.
“Neither,” I say. “I want to go back to the real world.”
“Sorry, Jack,” Arnold says. “But until you learn to play nice with others, you’re on time out. How about this: if you go back to believing the simulation is real, but you start treating the simulated people with respect, you can rejoin society.”
“But if I forget this is a simulation, how can I pass that test? I’ll just go back to acting the same way I did before.”
Arnold looks thoughtful. “Tell you what, I’ll give you little hints once in a while. Maybe you’ll happen to read a short story about someone stuck in a simulation and it will make you wonder if this world is real. Stuff like that. So what’ll it be? Live a hedonistic existence inside a simulated world, or take the test again?”
I look out at the audience. Several of the women seem more attractive than they did before. True, pleasure is fleeting, but isn’t all of existence fleeting? I take a deep breath and give him my answer.
D. J. Moore lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and daughter. He edited the literary magazine Megaera and holds a degree in English from the University of Utah. His fiction has previously appeared in Every Day Fiction and the steampunk anthology Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel among other places. When not working at the day job, sleeping, spending time with his family, or writing, D. J. Moore can be found trying desperately to catch up on all the TV shows, video games, and comics everyone was raving about five years ago.