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The Stranger

David P Rogers lives near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, USA. His collection of short fiction, Emergency Exits, and a collection of poems, Antique Rockets, is out now. More at davidrogersbooks.com. Comments: This story is the result of my wondering for quite some time about the world-as-simulation idea. At first, I thought surely there could be no new stories to tell based on that time-honored premise. Then I asked, if the world is actually a simulation, must there not be an off-switch? Someone monitoring their creation to see how it goes? And so on. The story is my version of one set of possible answers to such questions.

When Rigel first read of the “discovery,” he keyed in the eye-roll emoji and kept scrolling. The idea that the world was only a simulation had been around for centuries. The notion was at least as old as Plato, who used the fame of his former teacher, Socrates, to promote his own wild ideas. Today, Rigel thought, Plato would be the king of internet conspiracy theorists. If the existence of Flat-Earthers defied explanation, try dealing with one who might claim it doesn’t matter if Earth is flat or round because the entire material world is only a projection.
Rigel still didn’t worry when rumors began to circulate beyond weird corners of the internet, when whispers and comments were heard in offices and on street corners. Graffitists took up the idea: Repent, for the world is a simulation and the end is nigh! appeared in colorful spray-painted letters in alleys and occasionally on pieces of high-profile real estate. Similar-themed NFTs were auctioned online for unbelievable prices.
Rumors have a way of turning into reality.
Even after it was widely accepted that the world was only a simulation, things seemed mostly normal for a while. Soon, however, people started to get careless. Jobs were neglected. Breakfasts and dinners were not cooked. Lawns went unmowed, bills unpaid. Let the simulation deal with the simulated consequences as best it could, people decided. Did I program the world to be this way? they asked. No? Then if you don’t like how things work, talk to the Programmer. Nobody knew who that was, of course.
Rigel, meanwhile, went to work every day at his ordinary job as an accountant at the regional office of an unremarkable mid-size corporation. He did start to record the various changes in his old-fashioned blog, A Cultural History of the End of the World. Blogs were hopelessly out of date, he knew, but he’d been blogging since before “social media” became a one-size-fits-all term used to dismiss internet fads. He wasn’t about to stop now.
Soon, more serious problems were allowed to fester. Bridges collapsed. Children wandered into traffic. Launch codes for nuclear arsenals were forgotten. Yet when people were confronted about the consequences of their irresponsibility, nonchalant attitudes persisted: why worry--where was the harm in a little simulated death and destruction? After all, none of it was even real.
The tenor of perceptions changed, Rigel noted in his blog, after the stranger came to town. Nobody noticed when he quietly checked into the hotel, but soon the stranger was seen taking pictures and making notes, and whispers began. A few people later told reporters the stranger had questioned them about dirty streets and crumbling buildings and littered parks and alleys. They answered, since it was all just a simulation, what did any of it matter? He nodded and made more notes, refusing to say anything specific about his origin or purpose. “Just a routine report on the progress of the experiment,” he said. “We all have to justify expenses, you know.” Apathy was gradually replaced by paranoia. Three days after the stranger arrived, he disappeared and was not seen again.
People worried even more seriously when the shortages began--food and medicine, fuel, electricity, things that did actually make differences in everyday life. No one panicked until that last morning, when the sheriff issued orders for everyone to stay inside. The sun rose, briefly, but soon the sky turned black. Inky, moonless, midnight black. A rumbling, crackling roar was heard from the edge of town. The ebony sky extended horizon to horizon and swallowed the town, dirty streets and all. Rigel pointed his phone out the window of his apartment and recorded the spreading darkness. It rolled down the street like fallout from a mushroom cloud, everything in its path vanishing quickly as five-year-old balance sheets through the office paper shredder.
So now we float here in nearly absolute darkness and empty space, Rigel wrote, with nothing to do but stare at words that blink around the black horizon: This Simulation Discontinued. Reprogram Pending. I'll be happy if the new simulation just has food and water, he typed, determined to blog till the bitter end. I hope the reprogramming starts soon. Empty space is quite cold and I am rather hungry. Thirsty, too. And the battery on my phone is dying.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 22nd, 2021


Author Comments

Author bio: David P Rogers lives near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, USA. His collection of short fiction, Emergency Exits, and a collection of poems, Antique Rockets, is out now. More at Davidrogersbooks.com. Comments: This story is the result of my wondering for quite some time about the world-as-simulation idea. At first, I thought surely there could be no new stories to tell based on that time-honored premise. Then I asked, if the world is actually a simulation, must there not be an off-switch? Someone monitoring their creation to see how it goes? And so on. The story is my version of one set of possible answers to such questions.

- David Paul Rogers
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