Get That Rat Off My Face!

By Luke Burrage

This novella is dedicated to all the listeners of the Science Fiction Book Review Podcast who have ever volunteered to read my fiction and provide feedback. For this specific story I must thank listeners Greg Montague and Martin Noutch.

This is edit 3.0, completed on January 12th, 2012. If you spot any spelling or grammar mistakes, feel free to point them out so I can fix them in edit 3.1. Feedback to

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The license only applies to the electronic text version of the novel. Any of the above conditions can be waived if you get my permission. If you would like to do more than read or share the text of the novel electronically (eg. derivative works, print publishing, audio versions, film rights, or other commercial interests) please email me:

Thanks for reading!

Chapter 1

It begins, though one is unsure what just began. It’s like a dream, though without the structure. There is awareness and knowledge, but no memory.

Is this a story? If so, there isn’t much to kick it off. A formless black void, accompanied by silence. Attempt to move, and one feels nothing. The hand isn’t restricted, merely absent. If we’re going to have a story, we’re going to need more than this.

Wait, is this story in first person or third person?

There is awareness, but no center to that awareness. One is thinking, so one exists, but if there is nothing with which to interact, and nothing to perceive, how can one identify what constitutes self compared to otherness?

Unless something happens that one doesn’t control directly, how can one know the limit of one’s being?

I just hope something happens soon.

Soon? How can one define relative lengths of time when nothing is happening? Maybe I can count heart beats.

Are we going to settle for “I”? Does first person mean anything when the second and third person don’t exist? Does the word “we” mean anything when only the first person exists?

Did God have nobody to talk to before he created the angels? Did Adam have a belly button?

So I do have memories! I didn’t just invent the concept of God, and Adam was the first man on Earth, according to the Christians. I’m sure of that.

Let there be light.


And there was light. White light. It wasn’t blinding, it just slowly faded up from nothing, a uniform wash, as devoid of details as the black that came before.

Then came a voice. It wasn’t the voice of God, unless God spoke like an old fashioned computer, androgynous and robotic.

“Hello and welcome.”

As it spoke, black text appeared against the white background. The font mono-spaced. Something like 14 point Courier, though lacking any external reference, it might be bigger and further away.

With the voice, time begins. The voice is waiting for a response.

“Hello. Who are you?”

The voice that replied is your own. You don’t recognize it. It is as androgynous as the computer’s, and lacking any placable accent. It has no accompanying text.

“I am a computer. Who are you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t remember anything. Is this a dream?”

“No, this is a thought experiment.”

“Is it? What’s the experiment?”

“It is very simple. You must design a society.”

“What kind of society?”

“Any kind of society you want. I must not give examples incase I influence your thoughts.”

“Should I consider the politics? The laws? The cultural aspects?”

“That is up to you.”

“Okay. It’s like I’m writing a science fiction novel, or something like that. Orwell created a new society in 1984. That kind of thing?”

“Let me make one clarification. Design a society in which you want to live.”

“So we’re going for utopia instead of dystopia. Although a utopia for some people is a dystopia for others.”

The computer stays silent, the text slowly fading to white.

“Hey, computer, I think I understand the point of the thought experiment. Do you want to know what I think?”

“Go ahead.”

“It’s very clever. I have to design a society in which I’d like to live, but I don’t know who I am.”


“I have no memories older than this thought experiment. If I design a society that privileges one group of people above the others, I might end up as one of the underprivileged.”

But that isn’t quite right. You have no memories of your own history, or of your identity, but you do have knowledge of the world and existing societies. If not, how would you go about designing one from scratch?

“I’m just thinking out loud, computer, but I’m a guy, right? I must be. I know the name of a fixed width font, and I instantly thought about science fiction and 1984. I even know Orwell’s real name. Blair. Something Blair. Eric Blair?”

The computer says nothing, and all previous text has dissolved.

“I’m probably white too. That’s a guess, but it feels right. You know, going on probabilities. We’re talking English, and some of my first thoughts were about Adam and God. God, not Allah. And because I know George Orwell, I’m probably American or English. I mean British. Or Australian or Canadian. Where else do they speak English?

“I’m probably pretty affluent, or else how else would I have access to this kind of computer equipment? There’s something weird happening, to restrict my memories like this, and that must cost a lot. Am I paying for this myself, or am I a paid experimenter? Or am I the experiment?”

The computer provides no clue. You stare out into the white expanse, unsure if it is still white, or if it has faded to black again.

“Finally, I’m probably very intelligent. Not only was I intelligent enough to earn enough money, or power or influence, to get access to this computer setup, I also worked out the point of the experiment almost immediately.”

Of course, that could be because you glimpsed, somewhere obscured by whatever is blocking your memory, the knowledge of the thought experiment itself. Or you might have read about it in a political philosophy text some time. Maybe you aren’t as clever as you thought.

“Are you still there?”

“Yes. I am waiting for you to design a society.”

“But I already get the point of the experiment. The conclusion is that you shouldn’t let the people with power control the society, because they will always privilege people like them, and never consider what other people not like them might like.”

“This is not the end of the experiment.”

“Fine. So shall I write it down? Can I have a pen and paper?”

“Just formulate a series of statements that will define the society.”

“The constitution.”

“Yes. Or a series of laws.”

“Okay. Let me think this over.”

“You may take all the time you need.”



Time passes. You think it over.

“Okay, I have a good start. Self evident truths are good, but I think we need to write them down first. Same with inalienable rights. If they really were self evident to everyone, we wouldn’t need to put them in the rule book.

“So the Bill of Rights is a good place to begin. All human beings are created equal and all that kind of thing. No discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera.”

You proceed to outline all the other things you’d like to see in a society. A justice system that emphasizes proscriptive guides to living rather than prohibitions. The golden rule is a good place to begin. Instead of it being “Don’t do to others what you don’t want to happen to you” you flip it to “Do to others as you would want them to do to you.” Like Jesus said.

But talking of Jesus, some people believe in weird stuff, and think that if they didn’t believe it, they would be happier if someone forced them to believe it. That’s how the Inquisition got going.

Do to others as you would have them do to you, but this is restricted to externally measurable actions. Restricted to physical actions, or non-physical actions that manifest as changes in the physical world. For unquantifiable actions, like saving someone’s eternal soul, it has to be “don’t do to others.”

“Is this thought-experiment-y enough for you?” you say, after trying to explain it to the computer. You’re not quite sure if it makes total sense.

To maximize the fulfillment of the desires of the largest number of people, you put in place a guaranteed minimum income. Everyone is given enough money to live. This doesn’t need to be much, as free healthcare is a basic right. Is it? Maybe. You’re going to go with it for the sake of the experiment.

You have a series of other interesting ideas, yet attempt to strike a balance with tried and tested rules.

“Am I missing anything?”

“You are missing many things, but if you are happy with your society, we can move on to the next stage of the experiment.”

“And what’s the next stage?” you ask. But you have already guessed.

“Now you will live in the society that you just designed.”

Chapter 2

And suddenly, I have memories. I know the world, and I know my place in the world. As these memories flood in, so does my personality. Except I immediately know these aren’t my memories, and it isn’t my personality. This is someone else. I need to go third person limited.

Gareth opened his eyes, and looked around the room. It was a bedroom, his bedroom, but he had the feeling he’d never been there before. In fact, only that small, nagging part of his brain called it a bedroom. He knew it was really called a cabin. He was on a ship.

He lay in a narrow bunk, and to his right stood a small chair at a desk. A series of cabinets completed the visible furniture, each door very narrow so they could easily open into the small space in the center of the cabin. He was happy to have a cabin to himself, no matter how small. Personal space was a luxury on an aircraft carrier.

Only officers had private cabins. Only officers… and pilots? Gareth was a pilot.

“Gareth,” said the computer, and a fixed-width typeface sentence hovered in the air in front of his eyes, “can you hear me?”

“I copy,” said Gareth.

“You are in a simulation, but please don’t do anything reckless. You chose to partake in this thought experiment, so it is counterproductive to cheat. If something happens, please react as naturally as possible.”


“As you didn’t specify the political history of your society, I have filled in the details using baseline information from early twenty-first century nations. I have selected an appropriate level of technology too. In this time there are no computer simulations as hard to distinguish from reality as this one.”

Gareth pinched his thigh. It hurt! This was no dream. And yet he had no memory of any technology that could immerse a human intelligence in such a visual space, and also provide full body feedback. He found this very interesting, but knew he shouldn’t dwell on the fact.

“Your original outline for this society can not be changed. If you are unhappy with any parameters I have selected independently of your outline, you can change them at will. Just ask, and I’ll update the world as it is running. Do you have any questions?”

“Not right now,” said Gareth.

“If you need anything, just ask. And remember, I want you to be happy in the society that we have created together.”

Gareth’s alarm clock buzzed at him, and he slammed the top with his palm. What were his orders for today? They swam into his mind, as though remembered for the first time.

Today he was going to fly the border between two countries at war. Delphinia and Somnotania made up two halves of the same large land mass. The border between the two was carefully delineated by barbed wire fences, land mines, and watchtowers, and yet disputed by both sides. The unresolved disputes now resulted in diplomatic rather than military conflicts, but it was Gareth’s job to patrol the no-fly-zone along this border.

Delphinia was an overpopulated country, poor in natural resources. Much of its interior had been deforested, and the resulting farmland lacked enough nutrients to grow crops or even graze cattle. Large parts of the landscape had turned into dusty wastelands, almost deserts.

Somnotania had a much smaller population, and was a net exporter of oil and natural gas. Most of its population lived in large cities along the opposite coastline from Delphinia. The standard of living was very high, due to genuine equality, progressive laws, a guaranteed income for every citizen, and a whole raft of other factors.

Gareth smiled. He knew which one of the two countries he would be living in.

He got out of bed, stripped out of his sleeping underwear and t-shirt, and got dressed into his flight gear. He’d done this hundreds, maybe thousands of times before, and every tiny motion felt natural. He left his cabin, saluting a Navy officer who walked past at that very moment.

The Navy officer was black. Gareth looked at the backs of his own hands. Gareth was white. Of course, he thought. And then… Did I just feel relieved that I’m not black? In this world race isn’t an issue, but outside of the simulation, it obviously still is. In that world, am I a racist?

He pushed those thoughts to one side.

In the flight officers’ ward room he wolfed down eggs and white toast, the traditional breakfast meal for pilots before a mission. He supplemented it with two large mugs of strong black coffee. He felt the caffeine rush kick in by the time he stood up to leave.

He took a shortcut through a midship petty officers’ shower room, and arrived at the prep room. He already wore his overalls, so put on his combat vest. This vest contained a parachute, radio gear, and air bladders that would inflate to support his body while pulling high G maneuvers. He put on his helmet and plugged it into his vest, but he left his visor up. Finally he slipped on his gloves, then took a small elevator directly up to the hanger deck.

Lines of planes disappeared into the gloom, along with a clutch of helicopters for marine transport.

Gareth walked towards the sleek GR-59 fighter-bombers. His ground crew had prepped his GR-59 hours before Gareth had even left his cabin. Totally confident in his crew’s abilities, he simply saluted as he strode past, then turned and gave everyone a thumbs up. He scrambled up the gantry steps, across to the cockpit of his aircraft, and lowered himself inside.

As he strapped himself in, Stat Wilson, the head of his ground crew, appeared above him, and checked his vest and radio. At Wilson’s hand signal, airbags inflated around his feet and legs, holding him in place. No matter what happened during the flight, Gareth’s lower body would remain motionless the entire time.

“Ready to take you up,” said Wilson over the intercom.

“Let’s do it,” said Gareth, and lowered his visor. The cockpit closed too, a similar motion.

Gareth looked up. A white line appeared in the dark above him. It widened. The white line became a rectangle, then a square. The ground below Gareth surged, and the white square grew in every direction. Gareth’s visor darkened to compensate for the increasing light, and as the white square lowered around the GR-59, the white became high, mottled clouds. The aircraft lift stopped, settling perfectly flush with the runway.

The ocean had hardly a ripple, and the carrier sliced through the water as smooth as Gareth had ever felt. Blue sky showed along the western horizon, though the sun hid behind the clouds to the east.

A perfect day for flying.

Gareth waited for the signal from the deck crew, and once he’d confirmed the area behind his jet clear of humans, he began flipping switches. His twin engines roared to life, and he tweaked the thrust vector, feeling the plane push forward against the brakes. Following instructions from the tower, he rolled forward a few meters until his front wheel tucked up against the catapult.

His ground crew disconnected the external power lines, and the GR-59 became a machine of its own, independent of the carrier. It still needed a push to get going, but then it would be free. Figures in color-coded outfits ran or walked away from the plane, and cleared a long, wide space in front of Gareth, all the way to the ramp at the end of the carrier.

“Cleared for takeoff,” said the tower.

Gareth flared his engines, and felt the power vibrating thought his entire body.

“Engage,” he said. High pressure steam flowed into the catapult’s ram, and at the same moment the GR-59’s brakes released. Gareth’s vision held steady as gravity changed direction and the carrier disappeared behind him. With his afterburners at full power, Gareth pulled back on the stick and climbed into the sky. He circled the carrier, exchanging mindless banter with the tower.

As an air force pilot, he’d done this many times before, but the thrill remained.

As the participant in a thought experiment, he knew this was his first time. The thrill was intense, every moment a surprise, but he let his newly remembered personality take over, skills honed over fifteen years controlling his actions like natural instincts.

He punched up through the cloud layer and the sun suddenly cast every detail into sharp focus, the shadow of his plane dancing over the white topped clouds below. He turned turned south, and broke Mach 1 as he sauntered towards the coast.

What a rush! What a life! Both parts of Gareth’s mind agreed on this.

Everyone must want this job, he thought. How could they not? There is danger, of course, but not so great. With the minimum guaranteed income, anyone could apply for training and not have to worry about earning a living. Only the best would be selected, and then only the best of the best would make it through training. The best of the best of the best would make it to the carrier. And the best of them would fly regular missions.

And this would be repeated through every part of Somnotania society. A pure meritocracy.

My father must be proud.

Then the relevant memories flooded in. Gareth’s father, Donald Junior, had also been an air force pilot. He was now a highly ranked general, one step down from air marshal. Gareth had the skills to be a carrier pilot, or else he simply wouldn’t be in this position, but he’d not made it into training on his own merits. His father had never admitted it to him, but Gareth knew someone had been pulling strings.

And then it hit him. Gareth wasn’t from Somnotania. He was from Greater Dettland, a large nation on the neighboring continent to the island that contained Somnotania and Delphinia. Dettland had brokered a kind of peace between the warring nations diplomatically, though it could only do so by supporting Delphinia militarily.

The no fly zone wasn’t enforced by Somnotania, but by Dettland.

And I assumed, thought that small part of Gareth’s mind, that I would be living in the society I designed. How strange.

Chapter 3

“Computer?” said Gareth.

“Yes?” White text creating a HUD over his HUD.

“You said I was going to live in the society I designed.”

“That is true. You are on your way there now.”

How difficult is it to shoot a bullet with a bullet? If you tried really hard, you could probably make it happen. But intentionality is the key here. You have to really try really hard. In a war zone, with many thousands of bullets flying around, two bullets may collide mid flight. The chances are very low though. So how about the chances of two bullets, and only two bullets, fired at random, into a random space, colliding with each other? The odds are vanishingly small. What could possibly be less likely than that?

The meteorite hit the left wing of Gareth’s GR-59 a split second after he saw it on his radar overlay. He had no chance to respond, and neither did the plane. The wing blossomed with flame, and broke apart faster than Gareth could perceive. He calmly ejected his sea from the cockpit, launching him clear of the twisting wreckage of the plane.

Gareth watched the plane diminish into the blue sky, falling towards the clouds in an unpowered spiral. Once he was falling feet first, and not head first, the seat deployed a parachute. If the wind held steady, he’d leave the ocean behind and land somewhere in Somnotania. He dropped through the clouds, and the land became visible beneath him. Woodlands, farm lands, a network of roads, many leading up to and terminating just short of a series of fences and fortifications running north to south.

He was arriving in Somnotania in an overly dramatic fashion. Why was that?

Details grew as height diminished, and soon he pinpointed his likely landing spot. A field near a small village, bordered on two sides by a dense forest. His seat released an inflatable raft mere meters from the ground, surprising Gareth, but cushioning the landing. His parachute disengaged and blew away in the wind, leaving him sitting comfortably in silence. He tried his radio, but couldn’t raise the carrier.

Where to now? That depended on the politics. He’d been briefed on the situation, and remembered something about turning himself into local authorities. Technically he was from a neutral country in the ongoing hostilities, but how would that translate in reality, considering local animosities?

Only one thing for it then. He walked towards the small village.


“Hello? Anyone here?”

The door opened, and a middle aged woman peered back at him. “Grund framly ho nickshwal.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Framly ho dentvatfry hood,” said the woman.

Oh, thought Gareth, they speak Somnotian here. He knew nothing more complicated than “Hello”, and “Thank you”, and “I’m a neutral serviceman from Greater Dettland.” And now, when he needed it, even those phrases had slipped his mind.

The woman shut the door without waiting for an response.



“Can I change one of the parameters of my designed society?”

“You may not change a parameter you have already set, but you may change one that have I selected.”

“Everyone in this society must speak English.”

“In this world English is a very minor language. Why would the people of Somnotania ever speak English?”

“But it is a simulation. Can’t you just make it so everyone speaks a single language that I understand?”

“What makes understanding the language so important?”

“Because I’ve got to be happy here. If I don’t understand the language, I won’t be happy.”

“You understand Dett, the language of Dettland.”

“So make everyone in Somnotania understand Dett. Dettland is the next largest country in this part of the world. The new policy is that, when at school, everyone learns at least two other languages. One should be the language of the nearest smaller country, and the other the nearest larger country. It will make visitors and immigrants from the smaller country more welcome, and make visiting the larger country easier for the whole population. It will be good for trade and exchange of media too.”

“Anything else?”

“Not for now.”

“I have made the change.”

“Thank you, computer.”

Gareth knocked on the door again. “Hello in there,” he called, “do you understand Dett?”

The door cracked open. “Of course,” said the woman. “I thought you were from the other side.”

Gareth was unsure how much to say, but decided he might as well go with the truth. Not the full truth, but the truth as it stood in this simulation. “My plane went down over the sea, and I landed by parachute in the field just over there.”

“Are you sure you’re not from Delphinia?” Her forehead furrowed.

“I’ve never even been to Delphinia.” That was the truth either way you looked at it. “Do you have a phone?”

“Come in,” said the woman, and held the door wide. Gareth stepped through into the dark and musty hallway.

Pain exploded in the back of his head, and he saw the floor lurching up to meet his face. His vision blacked out, not from unconsciousness, but from some kind of bag held over his head. A strap tightened around his neck, and no matter how hard he tried to breathe, and willed the blood to flow through the restricted arteries to his brain, he had no choice but to let control and awareness lapse.


Gravel and dirt scraped down Gareth’s back. Someone was dragging him by straps secured around his shoulders. His head was still covered by a bag, so he raised his hand to remove it. His hands had been tied together. They brushed against crumbling earth above him, and he felt falling grit against his chest. He moved his legs. At least they hadn’t been tied.

I’m in a tunnel, he thought. But where am I going?


“Quiet!” hissed a man in the tunnel ahead, in accented Dett.

And who is taking me there?

Time dragged as Gareth was dragged. An indeterminate period later, he heard muffled shouts down the tunnel. Or up the tunnel. He wasn’t sure. The straps loosened, and Gareth stopped.

“Don’t move!” Another hiss, and then scrapes of a man pulling himself away up the tunnel. Gunfire. Screams. A helicopter faded in and out again. Then silence.

There must be a long rope laid the entire length of the tunnel, as suddenly the straps pulled tight and Gareth began to move once more, but now back the way he had come! The new direction of travel pulled his flight suit up into his crotch. That hurt.

He heard mumbling voices become more and more distinct, until he recognized two men talking in Somnotian. The air inside the bag over his head remained hot and stuffy, but suddenly Gareth felt fresh, cool air around his body. He slipped down a small slope and stopped.

One voice switched to Dett. “You are lucky we found you. Are you hurt?”

“I’m okay. Just bruises, I think.”

“Let’s walk.”

Hands on his back guided him along a twisting path. “Are you going to untie me?”

“Not yet.”

Gareth pressed. “What’s going on?”

He felt the something wet hit his chest, and a moment later he realized he’d just heard a gunshot. Then he felt something solid puncture his left shoulder. He dived blindly to the side, landing hard in some long grass, gasping in pain. More gunfire sounded around him, and he had no idea who was shooting at whom, and from where. He once again lifted his hands to remove the bag on his head, gritting his teeth against the pain in his shoulder. The light blinded him, and he saw blood on his hands. He hoped it wasn’t his own blood.

Gareth pushed himself further into the thick grass. He looked back and spotted bodies on the road and grass, laying in unnatural positions, red pock marks across heads and chests and backs. A small cottage stood close by, windows shattered and white plaster walls scarred by bullets and shrapnel. The fire fight couldn’t have done so much damage so quickly, so this area must have seen military action before. Back along the path he saw the double line of fences that marked the border between the two countries.



“What the hell is going on?”

“The thought experiment is proceeding as designed.”

“I’m in a war zone!”

“You are living in the society you designed.”

“This is crazy! I didn’t say the society would be at war.”

“This isn’t a war. This is a small cross-border shooting match. When simulating the society, continuing hostilities between Somnotania and the surrounding nation states was the most probable outcome. To simplify the situation, I placed Somnotania on an island and reduced the number of borders. Delphinia is ruled by a totalitarian regime that blames Somnotania for all its ills. While the population doesn’t believe the lie, the inequality creates real resentment, and has for a generation.”

The gunfire stopped abruptly. Gareth kept his head down and wriggled towards the nearby tree cover.

“Computer, I want you to change something. There shouldn’t be war like this.”

“What would you have me change?”

“Make there be a revolution in Delphinia. The people could rise up and establish a democratic government.”

“I am sorry. I can only change Somnotania.”

“But you created Delphinia from scratch!”

“I had to make the neighboring country weak, or else it would have claimed Somnotian territory after the Greater War.”

“Why create it at all?”

“No society exists in isolation. It must interact with others.”

“So what can you do?”

“You have not yet defined a set of foreign policies for Somnotania.”

“Make it so they are more interested in trade than war.”

“I tried simulating trade. Delphinia has nothing to trade.”

“Make it so they are more interested in foreign aid than trade then. And Dettland is too interested in keeping the status quo between the two countries, so get Somnotania to petition the R.N. to allow more control over the border.”

“The Reunited Nations will accept that if Somnotania reduces its military capabilities.”

“It’s a deal.”

“I have made the changes.”

Chapter 4

Gareth worked with his teeth and managed to untie the cord around his wrists. Every motion jolted his left shoulder, and he had to stop many times to catch his breath. Once his hands could move independently, he almost regretted freeing them. His bound wrists had created support for his left arm, and now it hung free it put extra strain on the damaged muscles in his shoulder. He used the cord to make a sling to suspend his left arm.

What next? He needed to get to a hospital. His shoulder was still bleeding. Not badly, but left untended it would only get worse. He suspected the bullet was lodged inside his muscle somewhere, as when probing with his right fingers, he couldn’t find an exit wound.

He searched through his pockets. Every single one was empty. He’d been stripped of all his emergency equipment and supplies when unconscious. He had no cellphone, no money, and no idea where he was. Somewhere very near the border. He didn’t even have a watch, or any way to tell the time.

The sun shone down through the trees now. Guessing it was about midday, and knowing the sun would be south at that time, he set off west, away from the border.

After an hour, Gareth stumbled out of the dense forest onto a two lane road. It ran more north and south than his original heading, but decided to take it. He turned north, towards the coast, the sun warming his back when it shone down through gaps in the trees above the road. He hoped he’d reach more signs of civilization soon.

He heard a car approaching from behind. He put out his thumb.

“Computer. Make it so that in this society people pick up hitchhikers.”

“I’ve made the change.”

The car pulled to a stop beside Gareth. A young man sat behind the wheel, and a young woman sat in the passenger seat. They looked like a couple. They looked terrified.

Gareth opened the rear door and climbed in, careful not to jolt his shoulder.

“Where are you heading?” he asked.

“W-Where do you want us to take you?” stammered the young man.

“Oh, don’t go out of your way,” said Gareth, “I just need to get to a large town or city.”

The man nodded, exchanging nervous glances with his girlfriend.

“Computer,” Gareth muttered under his breath, “what are they afraid of?”


“But I said people should be happy to give lifts to hitchhikers.”

“You did not. You said they should pick up hitchhikers. They think you are a member of the drug cartels, and that you are armed. If they had driven past without stopping, they expected you to open fire. As long as they follow your orders, they expect to get through this without harm, and not report it to the border police. Such is the understanding between the cartels and the people of Somnotania.”

“I don’t have a gun.”

“They do not know this. The drug cartels do not normally operate this far north. They know you are not Somnotian. You are speaking Dett with a Dettland accent. You also have an obvious and fresh bullet wound.”

“Why are there drug cartels?”

“Drugs are illegal. The cartels smuggle drugs across the border.”

“Computer, I’d like you to change the drug laws. Make it so drugs are no longer illegal. Drug trade should be above board and taxed like any other import. Addiction should be treated like alcoholism, with medical support and counseling, not imprisonment.”

“Drugs are already legal in Somnotania.”


“The direction of trade is from Somnotania to Delphinia.”

“Ah shit.” New memories told Gareth that this was the case. Somnotania restricted transportation of drugs across the border, at the request of Delphinia, but struggled to stem the flow. Much of the trade was carried out by local frontmen of Dettland-based crime syndicates.

Yes, thought Gareth, I understand why they don’t trust me. What law could I change to sort out this mess? Nothing came to mind. If you had a guaranteed income, who would turn to crime? Foreigners. Non-citizens. Those who didn’t have access to all the benefits of living within the Somnotian system.


After sitting in silence for ten minutes, the landscape changed from pastures and forests to much larger fields, plowed and ready for planting or brimming with cereal crops. Then the road joined a dual carriage highway. Within a few kilometers they passed into an industrial zone, then into a commercial zone, and finally into a residential zone. Gareth was impressed by the tight planning system, though he couldn’t help thinking it looked like it had been designed by a computer.

Of course, it had been designed by a computer.

The couple stopped across the street from a large hospital. Gareth groaned a quick “Thank you” and stumbled out, his calf muscles cramping. He crossed the road with difficulty and then stopped. He stared at the signs outside of the main entrance. He couldn’t understand any of the writing. Which way to the emergency unit?

As he stood, swaying with pain and fatigue, two male nurses appeared beside him and lowered him into a wheel chair. They pushed him in through some large revolving doors, and took him directly into a long, pristine room filled with empty chairs and benches. One nurse walked out, leaving Gareth alone with the remaining nurse.

“Drentay fromly hasnoriner.” The nurse held out his hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Gareth, “I only speak Dett.”

“Can I see your ID card?”

“I… um… I don’t have one.” He remembered he had had one, once. His Dettland ID card was back on the carrier. Wait a moment. Did that carrier still exist?

“Are you a Somnotian national?”

Gareth shook his head.

“Do you have money to pay for your emergency treatment?”

“I have no money.”

“Then I have to ask you to stand up.”


“We are not permitted to extend free medical treatment to non-paying non-citizens. That includes the use of wheelchairs. You must leave the premises.”

“Wah?” Gareth tried to stand, but all strength had left his legs.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Computer.” The nurse didn’t react, as though Gareth hadn’t spoken.

“Yes,” replied the computer. The nurse obviously heard none of this conversation.

“I need help here.”

“Medical treatment costs money.”

“But this is an emergency. I didn’t choose to get shot.”

“Nobody chooses their place in society.”


“But what?”

“But ooooow!”

“The Somnotian society is very expensive to maintain, so the benefits can’t be extended to any visitor who can not pay.”

“Computer, change that policy. Free emergency treatment for any non-citizen.”

“Define emergency treatment.”

“I’m… I’m in a lot of pain here. Help me out.”

“Treatment of all trauma. Treatment of accidents. Treatment of injuries sustained during criminal activities. Treatment of life threatening ailments and diseases.”

“Yeah. What? Something like that. All of the above.”

“I’ve made the change.”


This time the change happened in front of his eyes. In a flash, the nurse disappeared. But the room had, in the same instant, filled with people. Dozens of people. Sick people. Ill people. People with crutches. People with bandages around their faces. People gaunt from too much drug use. People so thin they looked like they might keel over at any moment. Every bench and chair was occupied, as well as many other wheel chairs and even hospital beds. The room stank. Gone was the pristine cleanliness, replaced by unidentifiable stains and greasy patches on the floor and walls.

“Very well done,” muttered Gareth under his breath. “Very subtle.”

Time passed in a daze. A nurse appeared now and then, selecting injured and ill people, and leading them out of the room. The room slowly emptied. Unknown hours later, Gareth noticed his chair moving.

“Well, well, well,” said the doctor.

“Wah?” Ouch. Someone had prodded him with a needle. Am I in an operating theater? Time seemed to be flowing in random directions.

“This is quite a trophy.” The doctor clunked a piece of metal into a steel pan and showed it to Gareth. The misshapen bullet did indeed look impressive. That had been in his shoulder? All this time. “You guys really are stepping up your game.”

“We guys?” groaned Gareth as a nurse cleaned his wound with more antiseptic ointment.

“The cartels.”

“I’m not from the cartels,” protested Gareth. “I’m a pilot in the Dettland Air Force.”

“Same thing. We all know the Dettland Air Force is paid by the cartels to look the other way.”

Gareth thought about that. It was true. He’d accepted bribes himself. Or so he now remembered. There was no shame in it, right? It was just the way the world worked.

“My plane went down.”

“Yes, yes, yes. Sounds plausible. Still, we had a whole waiting room full of law abiding Delphinians out there who also needed treatment. You’re a strong looking guy, we knew you would last until evening.”

“What happens now?”

“We stitch you up, and then you can walk out yourself. This is a volunteer emergency unit, you know, none of us are getting paid to be here.”


Arm nominally repaired, and with a real sling, Gareth walked out into the cool night feeling far better. His head had cleared too. Now he was starving. He walked along deserted streets, trying to find a place to eat. He spotted a fast food stand on a street corner. Just the pictures of the burgers on the price list made his mouth water.

“A cheeseburger and fries, please,” he said.

The bored-looking teenaged boy behind the counter raised one eyebrow. “You have a card?”

Did he mean an ID card or a bank card of some kind? “I have a card.”

“Show me it.”

“I… don’t have a card.”

“Then I’m sorry, sir, I have no burgers. Please don’t make me call the police.”

Gareth stomped away. “Computer!”


“This thought experiment really sucks. I can’t even buy food without getting threatened with deportation. I thought I was meant to be living in the society.”

“You are living in the society.”

“But I’m an outcast!”

“The society you designed must exist alongside other societies.”

“What if I changed the parameters again? What if I just threw open the borders, and let anyone who wants to live here come in?”

“Do you want me to make that change?”

“No. That kind of influx would swamp the economy. Am I right?”

“So many people would leave Delphinia that their economy would also collapse. The Delphinian regime would close off the border even more than they have now.”

A small part of Gareth’s brain, with knowledge of a different world, a real world, concluded that this assumption was based on real history. A wall once divided a capital city, put in place after almost a fifth of the population fled from east to west.

“Can we stop the experiment? I don’t want to do this any more.”

“We can stop at any time. What have you learnt?”

“I’ve learnt that getting shot really hurts.”

“What else?”

“Oh okay, I’ll play along with your little game. I’ve learned that things are more complicated than I thought. The specifics don’t matter. Not really. No matter how well you think you’ve worked something out, there’ll always be something that messes it up. For example, if I wasn’t so hungry, and in so much pain, I’d be able to think better. Just get me out of here.”

“Stand by.”

Chapter 5

A formless black void, accompanied by silence. Attempt to move, and one feels nothing. You’ve been here before. But now you have memories of what has gone before. A story that began as the best day of your life, an important man in an important job, the freedom of the skies, the power to outrun sound itself. A story that ended as the worst day of your life, wounded, starving, drugged, destitute.

The thing about thought experiments is that they are meant to be inside the mind. They are to trick your brain into understanding the subtleties of a problem. In this case the experiment had been outside the mind. Even so, you’ve learned a lot.

What happens now? You’re waiting to get out.

“Hello Daniel,” says the computer, “welcome back.”

Except the voice isn’t the computer’s voice. It’s a female voice. And there are no accompanying words in a fixed-width font. It’s the voice of a real person. Camille. Her name is Camille. How do you know that name? Who is she?

Suddenly your memories flood back. And not the sparse, utilitarian memories of Gareth the air force pilot. Those seem flimsy now, patched together out of necessity and nothing more. Only when Gareth had examined his own history did he remember anything of note, and even then it had been formed of generalities and archetypes. You can’t even recall if Gareth had a second name.

You are not Gareth. You are Dan. Daniel Hamilton. Yes. This is your real identity. Every memory sparks off a thousand more, and your being is solidified in cross-referencing internally-consistent facts and narratives. This is more like it!

You have an identity, one you know is yours. I have an identity, you think, for the first time.

The story continues in first person.

I opened my eyes, and found Camille standing over me. Beautiful Camille. Camille the technician. I’d not met her before entering the clinic, but had, in the way that happens to me every few months, fallen in love with her a little bit. Every time it happens, I admit it’s a purely physical attraction, partly to do with the looks of the current fleeting infatuation target, and partly to do with the way she would smile at me.

Nothing ever came of these love-at-first-sight meetings. They invariably had a boyfriend. Or, as I grew older, variably they had a husband. It must be the confidence that comes from being in a secure and loving relationship that frees a woman to open up slightly to a male stranger like me.

Camille hadn’t triggered that reaction until I made a small joke, I forget what I said now. But she had smiled, and my heart had melted. Then she had strapped me into a chair, a chair disturbing in how much it resembled the electric chairs I’d seen in prison movies, pumped me full of drugs, and asked me a series of questions, each one progressively more complicated than the previous, until I fell asleep.

“Am I back?”

“Yes,” said Camille. “How do you feel?”

“Like I’ve been hit by a meteorite, dragged under a border both ways, shot, and deprived of food for eighteen hours. Who would believe all that could happen in just one day?”

Camille smiled. I felt that weird sensation in my belly.

“I do believe you’re back.”

“How long was I under?”

“About twenty-seven hours.”

“That feels about right,” I said, and glanced around the room. I was no longer in the chair, but laying in a single bed. The room about me was the hotel-style recuperation accommodation I recognized from the clinic’s brochure.

It was a simple room, but simple in the right way. Simple in a human way. There was a small cabinet beside the bed, which had a telephone and a blue folder. The walls were slightly off white, almost peachy orange, with mottled patterns breaking up the flat color. A simple door with an electric lock, two coat hooks on the wall just beside it. A thermostat and control box for the air conditioning. A desk and a chair. A two person couch, a shade of blue that clashed slightly with the walls. A second door, closed, but obviously leading to a small bathroom.

An insipid art print hung on the wall near the bed showing an old British Navy sailing ship. “Vaisseau Royal d’Angleterre.” A human touch.

A simple room. In the thought experiment simulation every room had been simple too, but simple only because the computer hadn’t known how to make it alive. Even the characters in the simulation hadn’t really felt alive. They had been placeholders for story telling purposes. A man. Two men. A middle aged woman. A teenaged boy. He didn’t even remember what they looked like. Any emotional reaction he’d had to these people had been triggered by something false. There hadn’t been much subtlety to any environment. The hospital waiting room had been a good example.

Even the flight at the beginning of the day seemed disappointingly hollow now. At the time it felt so good! I guessed that they had artificially tweaked the emotional response of Gareth.

“What happens now?” I asked.

“You get some sleep. Some real sleep. In the morning you’ll have your debrief session with Dr. Hooper, and then we can sign you out.”

“Of course,” I said. I yawned and peered up at Camille with blurry eyes. “I’d love to stay up chatting with you all night, but you’re right, I really need some rest.”


The problem with politics is that the only people who want power are the very people who should have the least power. That’s a truism, which means it’s only kinda true.

There have been many studies showing psychopathic tendencies in a majority of national level politicians. The same tendencies are found in powerful business people too, and in leaders of churches and other religious groups. To be a powerful business person you must also have pragmatic skills, while the opposite is true for church leaders. There is, in fact, a very high chance that powerful and self-promoting preachers were once business leaders. That is, business leaders who failed.

So pragmatic psychopaths become rich business people. They know they don’t need to become politicians to be powerful. They know they can pull the strings from the shadows. The preacher types also try to control the lives of others, but are usually happy to settle for controlling just their flock, and sex lives of minorities, and not the entire country.

National politicians, on the other hand, are the psychopaths who aren’t clever enough to aim for the power-without-responsibility target, nor happy to settle for mere personal financial gain or the control of a small group. They think that power is a noble goal, and often fool themselves into thinking that their psychopathic tendencies are merely strong leadership traits.

These are very broad generalizations, of course, but the problem exists for concerned voters.

And so, as technology progressed, a grassroots movement germinated and grew. A wide range of people, from all political points of view, asked “Isn’t there a way to test our politicians before voting them into office?”

Over the years, think tanks worked on perfecting the test. Asking questions wouldn’t be enough, as anyone can learn to give appropriate answers to almost any set of questions. Statistics and modeling would help in some cases, but the boffins decided to take the study in different directions.

Computer simulations in virtual reality worlds let them test decision making in real time. And yet, even then, they kept hitting the same problem over and over. The people who volunteered acted from the position of power. They had this power, of course, but even when trying to consider other people, they lacked the underdog view. They thought their personal advantages were universal to all people. Everyone is intelligent enough to look for work, right? And not to spend more money than they earn? right? It’s obvious! Except, for many people, it isn’t.

To be reductive, the common response would be something like “You’re poor? Get a job. Can’t get a job? Look harder. Having money problems? Try spending less. Got medical problems? You should have paid for health insurance.”

And so the experimenters restricted the capabilities of their test subjects inside the simulations. That worked pretty well. But then someone decided to put the subjects in charge of their own experiment. They became both the experimenter and the subject. Design a society, and then live in it.

But, and here’s the catch, you don’t know what position you will fill in that society.

Various politicians agreed to take part. Every single one came out of the experiment different from when they went in. They had tested their own assumptions about power, and usually they found large deficiencies in their understanding. Returning to their day jobs, each one of them began to convince others of the same simple idea:

“The measure of justice in society is in how we treat the least privileged.”

Many people dismissed the whole thing as a fad, or as some kind of religious test for office. The majority of politicians had no interest in the technology at all, but it caught on among voters. Political candidates would undergo the experiment, especially if they were facing an incumbent who had done so too.


And that is where my story ties into all this. My father, David “Dee” Hamilton, was a politician, and I never noticed how much he’d been grooming me to follow him down the same path until he had refused to let me become a professional musician. I loved the guitar, and could knock out a pretty tune on the piano too. Aged eighteen I had the knack for writing catchy lines of lyric and melody. I wanted to study music at college. My father wanted me to study constitutional law.

In the end we successfully compromised. He said that if I didn’t do what he wanted, I’d be kicked out of the house with no benefits. I said “Go to hell” and left. Okay, maybe the compromise wasn’t a success. I spent eight years on the road as a touring musician, fronting some bands, writing and releasing albums with others, and generally having a wicked old time. I wasn’t much of an embarrassment to my father, as he had publicly disowned me the first time I’d been arrested for using drugs.

One song I wrote had been used in a series of TV commercials, which brought in more money than I knew what to do with. I wish I had known what to do with it though, as most of it disappeared quicker than I thought it would. My father, telling me he was impressed that I’d made it as a successful musician, got in contact a year later. He wanted me to come home, for a just a chat. “Nothing serious,” he told me. I should have known not to trust him, as he’d never been honest in his life. Remember what I said about psychopath politicians? That wasn’t him, but sometimes I thought it might be.

So I met up with my father again, the first time we’d properly spoken face to face in almost a decade. He’d become more visible on the national stage, and he was expected to make a senate move in the next two to four years, so I wasn’t surprised about the increase in wrinkles and white hairs. Mother had shown him photos of me regularly, or at least she told me she had tried.

We did small talk for almost an hour. I was impressed with my father’s patience, as he’d never been so good with that. Finally we reached the real reason he’d got in touch.

“You’ve grown into a fine young man, son.”

“And you’re a fine old man, sir.”

“I think it’s time to consider what you want to do next.”

“I’m going to help produce an album for Third Place Winners.”

My father ignored my comment. “My seat here will be vacant soon,” he said, “as I’m going for a senate bid. If you stand, you’ll take my place without any problem. We’ll have a big tearful reunion, for the cameras, and I’ll give you my blessing to enter the race. With me backing you, and with the name recognition, you’ll win the older votes. Just call yourself Dee Hamilton Junior. Your music stuff will win you the younger voters no problem. That’ll take care of the primary. Then the opposition have a vote split, with Rowland declaring as an independent. You’ll only need forty percent to win.”

I grinned, but shook my head. “You’ve got it all planned out, haven’t you? It’s as though the last ten years never happened.”

“But son, you’re in a better position now than if you went to college. The world is changing. It’s all about the technology these days. The cutting edge. You’ve got a better handle on the internet stuff. All the new guys are using it to raise money. You can use your hit single as your theme tune in all the commercials. Everybody will love you.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell my father that “internet stuff” was no longer the cutting edge. Instead I said “How about you ask me again in another ten years?”

“Before you say no–”

“I already kinda did say no.”

“Before you say no, there’s something I want you to try. It’s a computer thing. Wilson set it up for me. I did quite well, according to the director at the clinic. I became a black man for over a week.”

“Wait… go back a bit. What are you talking about?”

“The Thought Experiment Group. It’s a think tank over in the capital. And by think tank, I mean they have a tank that makes you think.”

The deal was simple, once he’d shown me the material on the Thought Experiment Group. I do the experiment, and if it changed my mind, and made me interested in politics again, good for Dee Hamilton. If it had no effect, I’d go back to my own life, but on far better terms with my father. He didn’t outline the other end of the deal. That is, if I didn’t agree to the do the experiment, he’d probably disown me again.

I had nothing to lose. I knew I wouldn’t fall for his plan, so I took a trip to the capital and ended up in the electric chair.

Chapter 6

I sat in the debriefing room. It had been designed to make politicians feel comfortable, and the natural environment of the politician was an anonymous conference room. It put me on edge.

Dr. Hooper swept into the room. She was a women in her forties, dark hair pulled back into a tight bun, mixed race eyes, probably some Korean in them. Camille, beautiful Camille, followed a few steps behind. She wore her black hair down this morning, the loose curls framing her face. Both wore suits, no longer needing the medical uniforms of the clinic.

“Good morning, Mr. Hamilton,” said Dr. Hooper. “No, don’t stand.”

They sat across the long table from me, very businesslike. With a few taps, screens lit under the glass surface, screens I hadn’t noticed before. I leant forward and peered down. The 3D effect was more convincing than normal. It showed nothing but the Thought Experiment Group logo, revolving in a field of stars. I sat back slightly disappointed. I guessed their screens showed them much more.

“How are my results?”

“Far from typical,” said Dr. Hooper. “Our clients are usually older than you. And have a far different background. Camille had a lot of trouble keeping up during the simulation.”

“Is that so?” I asked, glancing across at Camille.

“Yes,” said Dr. Hooper, “normally our clients go far longer before changing their unstated parameters. They think they should stick with their first effort longer, and try to make it work for them.”

“Whereas I thought the idea was to fine-tune the rules from the start.”

“Yes. Also your initial design put our experiment to the test. Even with your memories restricted, you intuited the goal of the thought experiment before we even got to the simulation. And then, from scratch, you created a society far different to all those we’ve tested before. You already understood what this experiment normally lets our subjects realize. You’ve been disadvantaged, you’ve got a criminal record and have spent time in jail. If we had put you directly into one of the least fortunate people in your society, you’d probably have had little to complain about in terms of inequality.”

“And so,” said Camille, “we had to get you on outside of the society.”

“It was Camille’s idea,” said Dr. Hooper. “She wanted it to be more difficult than just a language barrier.”

“You were the computer?” I asked Camille.


“You had me shot!” I cried out, but inside thought it pretty funny.

“And I also patched you up. Sometimes I played a role more directly, like the doctor in the emergency hospital.”

“From the design of your society,” said Dr. Hooper, “we found that the main problems would be external. No society exists in isolation. You have an instinctive empathy for the people in your own society, but belied a naivety in terms of foreign relations. Most of our clients don’t have this problem, as their societies aren’t always the kind of place that makes foreigners flock in. It would have been too easy to make you a needy person from another country, like the Delphinians in the hospital. We needed you to understand threat from the outside.”

“In the novel 1984,” said Camille, “the proletarians only accept the power of Big Brother because, as stated in the book, Eurasia and East Asia have exactly equivalent regimes. There was no aspirational example.”

I nodded at that. “I understand, I think. So what do I do with this new found knowledge about fictional societies?”

“This is up to you,” said Dr. Hooper. “We’re just here to help people test if their world view is one they can live in, not just live with. Politicians are usually thankful for the reality check, even if they know we’re not trying to explore reality.”

“If you wanted to make me feel like an outcast in my society, you should have cast me in the role of a politician.”

Dr. Hooper raised her razor sharp eyebrows. “I thought…”

“You thought I was going to follow my father?”

“To be honest, yes.”

“I’m just playing his game. That’s all this is to me.”

Dr. Hooper’s face fell. “Usually people consider this more than a game, Mr. Hamilton.”

“So why do you have all that bogus aircraft carrier stuff? You’re telling me it’s not for the future video console version? Or do you give all the politicians a spin in the GR-59 fighter-bomber? Yeah, that’s probably it. The Thought Experiment can be used for good, but think of the military training you could do too. They probably have their own version already.”

“There is no conspiracy,” said Dr. Hooper. “We’re a non-profit group. Tax exempt.”

“Churches are tax exempt too,” I said, “and they too are nothing but game to me.” I decided to play a bit of diplomacy and try to clear the air before I went too far. “Look, I’ve had a fun time here, despite being shot. You’ve done your jobs perfectly, as far as I can tell, but whatever my father asked you to do, it didn’t work on me. I’m sorry. Is there something I have to sign? Do I get a certificate?”

They ran through some numbers with me, even more businesslike than before. They had tabulated my results into columns, assigning values to values. I didn’t put much effort into understanding it. I had no context to surround those numbers. I scored a five for both agism and youthism. Was that good? Were they even real words? Youthism? I didn’t ask.

We all stood, and we met at the end of the table. I shook Camille’s hand, and said it had been a pleasure working with her. I shook Dr. Hooper’s hand too, and she asked me to pass on regards to my father.

I left the conference room, and headed for the lobby of the clinic. I made a show of remembering my phone, which I’d left behind on my chair on purpose. On the way back to the conference room, I met Camille. She handed me my phone.

“Camille,” I began, touching her elbow as she turned away. She paused, and glanced at me out the corner of her eye. “I’d love to talk to you a bit more, about what you said about 1984.”

“Yes?” she smiled, and my knees weakened.

“But not now. Could we meet for coffee? Sometime later?”

“Mr. Hamilton,” she sighed, “you’re not the first client who’s asked me to chat later, over coffee.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” I said, dropping my hands to my sides. “I didn’t know there was a thing about the thing…”

“But, Daniel,” she turned to face me, “you’re the first client under forty who has asked me to chat later, over coffee.”

“I’m happy to know that I have at least one redeeming quality… that I’m about ten years younger than forty.”

“Yes. I finish at two this afternoon, so meet me out the front for lunch then.”

“Can I have your number, just in case?”

“I already entered it in your phone.” She walked away down the hall. I let her have the dramatic exit, and then retraced my steps towards the lobby.

Chapter 7

My father told me he would pick up the tab for the entire trip to the capital. He’d given me a credit card, and not mentioned any limit. So far I’d spent very little, not wanting to give my father any leverage over my life, but knowing I had a date with Camille, I decided to splash out. I hired a private car with a driver and booked a table at a swanky restaurant.

At three minutes past two, Camille left the clinic. I waved her over, and opened the rear door. She flashed a smile, but I saw the concern on her face.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “my father’s paying.” I closed the door after her, walked around to the other side, and got in.

She stole a glance my way. “This isn’t the kind of chat over coffee I was expecting.”

“I felt like surprising you with something special. You certainly gave me a surprise or two in the simulation.”

And the lunch was indeed special. After years on the road I’d grown used to eating cheaply. I never cooked for myself, so almost every meal consisted of overly-salty diner or restaurant food. I shared this fact with Camille. “I don’t cook either,” she said, then joked, “I just let men over forty take me on dinner dates.”

Conversation with Camille flowed easily. We had a number of common interests, and yet had such different lives. I considered myself an artist, a creative type. She considered herself a scientist and an engineer.

“But that doesn’t mean you’re not creative,” I said. “The way you controlled my simulation shows real artistic flare.”

“That’s mostly true,” she said, “and I’ve been working on other projects with the computer too, in my own time.”

“What kind of projects?”

“Other thought experiments, as teaching aids.” She launched into a description of a thought experiment about the curvature of space. Three dimensions, curving around in a fourth spacial dimension. She lost me long before she concluded with “…like a torus, but with an extra dimension.”

“A torus? You mean like a donut?”

“Exactly! So you did pay a little attention in school.”

“A little.”

“If you were on the surface of the torus, but stood so small you couldn’t tell it was curved, you’d feel like you were on a flat plane. But if you set off in any direction, you’ll eventually end up back at the same spot. In that way, a torus is exactly the same as a sphere. You keep going and return to the same point, and never reach an edge.”

“Are you sure?” I wasn’t convinced. Camille fiddled with her phone for a few seconds, then passed it over. “Mario?” I asked.

“Mario Galaxy. Run forward on that torus.”

I pressed the screen, and Mario ran around a torus floating in space. Running around the rim achieved the desired result. Running on the inner rim did so too. Then I set Mario running in a diagonal, and sure enough, he returned to the same spot after a single loop. Camille tapped a different spot, and suddenly Mario was running inside the torus. I found the same results. Then the camera swung through the torus, and the torus twisted, and my brain broke.

“I don’t understand what just happened.”

“If you were running beside Mario, everything would become clear.”

“This isn’t a thought experiment though,” I said, returning her phone, “just a geometry lesson.”

“Also topology. But you’re correct. A thought experiment is something more. You have to set up a story, and the listener, or the participant in the experiments I’m designing, intuitively expects a certain result. Then, when you run through the experiment, logic dictates a different result. In the case of the torus, your brain told you it was obviously different than a sphere, but once you ran around it, you realized that, in four dimensional universe, a perceived flat space where you go in a straight line and return to the same point could be either a sphere or a torus.”

“I’m not sure I do realize that.”

“You know it, but if this was a successful thought experiment, you’d understand it. Knowing comes from normal lessons. A thought experiment is one route to true understanding.”

“A thought experiment lets you grok it,” I said.

“Exactly. Grok is a good word. In the simulation you brought up 1984 as an example of creating a new society. You’ve obviously read science fiction.”

“Just the classics.”

“Science fiction is a form of thought experiment, you know. In the first half of the story, the author lays out a set of rules, and the reader intuits the result of these rules. And then the author takes the reader through the implications, using consistent logic, and reaches a different conclusion than the one the reader expected.”

“You’re saying that if the reader thought through all the rules, they would be able to reach the same end point as the author?”

“They might not reach the very same end point, but it would be possible. The first time someone reads 1984, they may think they are reading the story of the heroic revolutionary. That’s what we want, as human beings. We love heroes prevailing against the odds. But in 1984, we are told the odds. We’re told that Winston has no chance against Big Brother. Orwell then takes us through Winston’s story, step by logical step, and by end there is only one possible outcome.”

“That Winston betrays Julia in Room 101?”

“No, how Winston breaks is incidental in the thought experiment. He could have died at the end, and it wouldn’t have mattered. The important logical outcome is that victory goes to Big Brother.”

“It’s true,” I mused, “the first time I read it, at school, I thought Winston might win. I took it personally, you see. At the start I saw myself as Winston, oppressed by my school. Winston would break the mould, and change the world. Then, at the end, he failed. It was a message to me from the school. Want to be different? Want to make a difference? Don’t bother. Big Brother is watching you.”

“Or a message from your father.” I looked down at my empty plate, but didn’t respond. “I’m sorry,” said Camille at last. “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“No problem. You’re probably right.” I tried to steer the subject back on track. “So what you’re doing with the computer simulations are thought experiments, which in turn could be seen as living science fiction.”

“I’d not put it that way myself,” she said, “but you could be right. It’s more than playing a computer game though. By administering trans-cranial magnetic amnesia techniques, we can restrict access to previous memories, as and when they are triggered. We let through knowledge, but not memory.”

“What is the difference?”

“Emotional content, broadly speaking. Instead of true memories, we can suggest new memories, almost in real time. You flew a plane in your simulation, and at the time you knew what you were doing. You didn’t have to think about how or why, you just knew it. This was imparted from a pre-formatted script. Do you still remember how to fly a plane?”

“Sure,” but then I thought hard, and tried to picture what I’d have to do to take off from an aircraft carrier. I remembered remembering how to do it, but now didn’t know what it was that I’d remembered. All I knew now was what I’d seen and felt my hands doing at the time. But those images merely replayed like a movie, and a half-remembered movie at that. “No,” I admitted finally.

“The computer can give you access to new memories, but it doesn’t implant them in any way. It just lets you experience them once. We tried to use it for flight training, but it was less effective than pilots watching a video, as they got distracted by the faked physical effects.

“The effect of restricting memories is very important though. It lets people experience something for the first time, every time. We can make people leave behind emotional baggage, preconceived ideas, prejudices. Not permanently, of course, just for the duration of a limited simulation. It’s very powerful.

“We had one guy, some Christian preacher who wanted to go into politics. He insisted, even when we restricted his memories, that his designed society would be a form of Biblical theocracy. Sometimes things seep through the amnesia, so I tightened it up. It turns out that his Christian identity was so central, and his faith in God so absolute. I’d always thought that Christians didn’t really believe everything that said, not really. It turns out I was wrong.

“So what could I do? I couldn’t give him false memories of being an atheist and put him in a Christian theocracy. Instead I dropped him into a simulated Muslim theocracy. I cheated slightly, but he got the point when he woke up.”

“You should have made him a homosexual in the Christian theocracy,” I suggested.

“As far as I could make out, he already was homosexual.” Camille laughed. “I’m not kidding!”

The conversation had drawn to a natural pause. I couldn’t think of anything more to say, and Camille had given me too much to think about. I felt out of my depth with her. She had so much to say, and had thought about these important topics at depths I hadn’t known existed. I didn’t want to admit to her that I’d never finished Stranger in a Strange Land, despite starting it twice. I thought that if I talked to her about my projects, writing albums and touring with my band, those topics would have none of the same weight. She spent her days changing the minds of politicians, and indirectly might change the entire nation. I spent my days strumming my guitar and singing pop songs. A thirty second clip of my music in a Superbowl commercial didn’t seem so impressive any more, not as the culmination of my life’s work.

And yet, I still felt a connection with Camille, as though we were linked in a way I didn’t fully understand.

“So,” we both said, at the same moment, confirming my previous thought. We both laughed, maybe for different reasons, but that didn’t matter. The connection was real. Camille reached across the table and I took her hand. I massaged her palm with my thumb, and stroked the back of her hand with my fingers.

“I think…” she began.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said.

She smiled and we both stood up.

Chapter 8

I hadn’t planned on staying, but I spent the next three days in the capital. Two nights in my hotel and one at Camille’s apartment. They were some of the most magical days of my life. Or should I say magical evenings and nights, as Camille worked during the daytime. I spent those afternoon hours wandering through the city, checking out the memorials and museums, feeling slightly empty headed. I passed through the crowds like a ghost, or the people around me passed like ghosts, mere shapes with faces but no purpose.

I’d told my band I was taking a break for a while. This wasn’t a problem, as they already had a stand-in guitar player for my absence. I spun my father a different story.

“I’m taking some time to think it over,” I told him on the second day after I left the clinic. I heard grumblings on the other end of the line, but my father accepted it without further explanation.

The start of relationships are always strange times, but the time I spent with Camille surprised me in many new ways. For a start, I’d never fallen for someone so quickly. Normally I’d be the heartbreaker, and a girl would fall for me before I knew what was happening. A relationship I considered nothing more than a romantic fling would, to those previous girls, have far deeper meaning, and I always felt bad letting them down. And now I felt like I was on that other end. I was just waiting for Camille to lose interest, or admit that I never meant much to her, and move on.

I thought this might be the start of a Long Term Serious Relationship, which excited me, but also made me nervous. I had a long list of “no-go” items for a prospective girlfriend. I’ll not list them all here, but they were the kind of things that, in the first flushes of a relationship, I’d notice, but pretend they weren’t a problem. For example, she likes hard drugs, or doesn’t like traveling, or just got out of a long term relationship. Well, that’s not too bad, I think. Instead I tell myself that she’s an amazing musician, and great in bed, and interesting to talk to. The drug issue is fine. That she doesn’t want to come out on the road with me is fine. That she’s still pining over the ex is fine.

Until three months later. Suddenly there is nothing I can think about except that one negative attribute. After a month of mulling it over, I let the girlfriend down gently, knowing that I should have paid attention to that niggling feeling right from the very start.

Minimum requirements are one thing. But what about the positive Long Term Serious Relationship Dream Girl attributes?

As it happens, as picky as I am with the minimum requirements, I’m totally open to anything else. As long as I find the person attractive and interesting, everything else is a bonus.

Camille trumped every other girl I’d spent time with in the Long Term Serious Girlfriend Dream Girl department. She had something to say on every subject, and never mere trivialities. If she didn’t know something interesting about a topic, instead of saying her opinion, she’d ask an interesting question. I’d never supply a good answer, or only very rarely, but she had a never ending supply of curiosity.

And did I mention she was beautiful?

But there was one issue. I hadn’t asked her, but I knew right away that she wouldn’t want to travel very much, if at all. She had an amazing job, doing something she loved, and she would never join me on tour. I would never ask her either, knowing how much she loved her job.

That wouldn’t be a problem, right? We could work something out.

And I was doing it again! Setting myself up for another four month relationship with an uncomfortable and messy end.

Maybe this time it would be different. Maybe this time I could change. Maybe I could move to the capital, and not tour so much. There were plenty of recording studios in the city, so I could still fulfill production commitments. And I could concentrate on building a local following. No matter what, I should be able to find plenty of work.

And my father, if he won his election, would be moving to the capital within a few years.

Dammit! My father. It all came back to my father. I felt like I’d fallen into his trap, even though I knew I hadn’t. There I was, after just two days, thinking about moving to the geographic center of political power. That would make him happy! I wanted to talk it over with Camille, but she was the one person I wasn’t sure could talk to. After three days, talking about moving city to be with someone? Not just creepy, but also a really dumb idea.

Chapter 9

A formless black void, accompanied by silence. Attempt to move, and one feels nothing. You’ve been here before. Your eyes are open, you think. Your eyes are open. You think.

The black fades to green. The green separates into different shades, dark green and light green, with flecks of black shadow. You find yourself in a forest. A tropical forest. You look down at yourself and you are mostly naked, hairless dark brown skin, bare feet, a thong-like loincloth barely covering your penis. In your right hand you are holding a long thin pipe. In your left hand, a selection vicious looking darts.

You think, What am I doing here? Memories flood back. Camille invited you back to the clinic on your fourth day in the capital. They had no client booked overnight, and the computer was free in the evening.

Wait, you think, I’m still Daniel. We can do this in first person.

“Computer?” I say. “Camille?”

“Yes. I’m here.”

“I don’t have any new memories.”

“Don’t worry, you don’t need any for this thought experiment. This one has nothing to do with philosophy or the mind.”

“That’s a relief.” I take a step, and then stop. I look down, and vertigo almost overwhelms me. I’m not standing on the ground, like I thought before, but on a huge branch extending from an even more massive tree. There are no other branches or leaves below, in this tree or any others, just empty space for maybe two hundred meters. The forest floor is submerged in water of indeterminate depth.

“Don’t look down, Dan, look in the other trees.”

I do so, and I see a strange kind of hairy brown fruit hanging under the branches. As I study one at a distance, wishing I had a pair of binoculars, part of the fruit twists, and two eyes look directly back at me. Not just two eyes, but an upside down face. An arm appears and scratches behind the ears. Not fruit! Some kind of monkey, arms and legs pulled in, dangling by a long tail. There are none in my tree, I notice, but hundreds in the trees around, all at exactly the same level as I am.

“This isn’t natural.”

“Of course not. This is a thought experiment, and we have to restrict the parameters. The monkeys are a recently discovered species, and called Greater Telepathic Shaggy Drop Monkeys.”

“Telepathic Drop Monkeys?”

“Yes. They only pick up one signal from your brain, and that is the decision to harm them individually. Their response is to release their tails and drop all the way to the water below.”

“That’s a long way down.”

“Your job is to hit a monkey with a dart. You can try as many times as you like”

“Not a problem,” I say, and slide one of the four darts into the pipe. I put the pipe to my lips, and take aim at the nearest monkey I can see, maybe ten meters away. I raise the far end of the pipe, adjusting for how much the dart will drop as it crosses that distance.

I pause for a moment, sure I’m not getting the whole picture. The point of a thought experiment is to show a flaw in human intuition. Well, I think, Camille said I could take as many attempts as I need.

I blow as hard as I can. The moment the dart leaves the end of the blowpipe, the Greater Telepathic Shaggy Drop Monkey… drops. Of course it does. I see my dart fly across, raising slightly due to the angle I’d held the pipe, and then drop as gravity pulls it down.

The dart passes through the space recently vacated by the monkey. I cast my eyes down and follow the monkey all the way. It’s a long way. The monkey executes a perfect dive into the water below. After a few seconds its head emerges, and it paddles towards the trunk of its tree.

“Damn,” I say.

“Try again,” says Camille.

I slip another dart into the pipe, unconcerned that after doing this twice, I still have four darts in my left hand. I select another monkey, about the same distance. This time I know that it will drop as soon as I blow the dart. I think back to the first monkey. When the dart had passed above the monkey, they had been separated vertically by about five meters. I tip the pipe down, and aim below the monkey.

I blow again. The moment the dart leaves the pipe, the monkey drops. This time my dart misses the monkey by a similar distance as before, but passes below the monkey.


Camille says nothing.

I load up again and pick out a third monkey. This one is slightly further away than the others, maybe fifteen meters. Will this make it harder to hit? I don’t think so, not if I’ve worked it out. This time I aim directly at the monkey. I blow hard.

The monkey releases its tail and drops. But, affected by the same gravity, the dart drops too. The downward acceleration of one is matched by the other. The dart hits the monkey square in its chest. Seemingly unaffected by the dart, it completes its own perfect dive, identical to the monkeys before, and swims to the nearest tree trunk.

“Take another shot,” says Camille.

I do. I turn and find a Telepathic Drop Monkey much closer than the others, just four or five meters away. I aim directly at its chest and blow. It doesn’t have much time fall, but then neither does my dart. They reach the same airspace at the same moment.

I experiment with a few more distant monkeys, missing them on purpose, and then pick off another three monkeys in a row. When I’m not looking, the trees are repopulated with monkeys, always providing me with a target at any range I might want to try.

“This is very…” I pause, searching for a word.


“Yes, that too. But it’s silly. Telepathic Drop Monkeys and blow darts?”

“Everyone loves monkeys,” says Camille, “and it’s a good model of classical physics.”

“It’s just a reformulation of Galileo dropping lead balls from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” I say.

“And yet you missed twice.”

She had a point.


A formless black void, accompanied by silence. You don’t even attempt to move, because you’ve been here before. You know you just need to wait.

A voice. Two voices. The words are muffled, but slowly gain clarity. One is Camille. You’ve come to know her voice intimately over the last few days. But now it has a harder edge than you’ve heard before. This is an argument, or at least discussion with disagreement.

“… it’s not…”

“… seeing the…”

“… he’s coming…”

“… see to it that we’re not…”

Was that Dr. Hooper? I thought.

“… we need to test these things.” Camille again. “How can we know what the human mind will accept as real, and what they immediately recognize as wrong?”

“That’s not important to the Group. They want us to concentrate on live simulations, that change fluidly in real time. You’re the best we have at that, Camille. I don’t want you wasting the clinics time cavorting with your new boyfriend here.”

Camille told Dr. Hooper I was her boyfriend? I took that as a good sign.

“He’s not my boyfriend,” Camille said, “he just volunteered to help me test these new experiments.”

That stung.

“What did you run?”

“Remember the Drop Monkey idea?”

“You wasted time making that?”

“Not company time, Sarah, I came in late last week.”

Dr. Sarah Hooper. I hadn’t imagined her as a Sarah. Maybe a more exotic name to go with her eyes.

“What else have you got lined up for him?”

“Murder on the Relativity Express.”

“That’s more like it.” A pause. “Starting from the platform?”


“Okay. I’ll run this with you. Let’s see if we can skip forward after stage one, to stage four, and see if he notices. If he needs to remember stage two or three, we can feed it in.”

“He’s not under now, Sarah, he might be able to hear us.”

“So? He doesn’t have to remember.”

Chapter 10

A formless black void, accompanied by silence. Something makes you try to remember your name. Daniel? No. Maybe. Gareth? Not this time. Kyle? Who is Kyle? Not Kyle.

And then you remember. It all floods in at once. Sylvia Merchant. Your name is Sylvia. Except part of you knows it isn’t.

That part of you steps back to observe. Third person limited.

Sylvia ran up the stairs to the platform. She’d heard a train approaching, and didn’t want to miss seeing it arrive. Terence was on the train, and she’d not seen him for almost four months. They’d only been a couple for six months, and spending so long apart, and so early, couldn’t be healthy for the relationship. She imagined he’d have flowers, or chocolates. Maybe even a ring.

She looked down the platform. The noise she’d heard hadn’t been the 14:36 for platform 2, Terence’s train, but an express passing by platform 1. The engine noise dropped from a higher to lower tone as it passed by, affected by the doppler effect.

Then the train caught up visibly, smoke belching from the stack and streaming out behind. It too deformed by the doppler effect. The front end had by then stretched out comically, while the back end was still compressed.

For some reason Sylvia remembered that the platform was only eighty meters long. The train had five carriages, each twenty five meters long. She looked to her right, saw the back end of the train reach the far end of the platform. She turned her head to the left and saw that the engine hadn’t yet reached the other end of the platform.

Wow, she thought, trains are getting faster all the time! People said that they would never be able to reach the speed of light, for reasons Sylvia had never quite understood, but they must be getting close. One day, she thought, they will be able to go faster than the speed of light, and maybe, if someone invented a much more powerful engine, they might even break the speed of sound.

The express roared out of the station, now stretching out into the distance. Sylvia turned quickly, and waited for the world to spiral with her.

Terence’s train came from the same direction as the express, but on the opposite tracks. It pulled to a smooth stop, the squeal of the brakes cutting out at the same moment the engine halted. The back of the train came to a stop a second later. The doors opened, and people flooded out, calling to friends and family members waiting on the platform.

“Sylvia!” Terence called from the far end of the train. She turned round and saw him stepping down onto the platform, and then he mouthed her name. She ran the length of the platform to fall into his arms.

But when she did so, his arms were hard. She tried to kiss him, but he turned his face away. “What’s wrong?” she gasped.

“I’m sorry,” said Terence, “but I must get back on the train. I’m taking it all the way back to the capital.”

“You just flew here from the capital. What happened?”

“I met someone,” said Terence, “Bridget, from college. I’ve not seen her for ten years, and she sat down right across from me. We talked for hours.”

“Hours? But the train only takes fifty minutes from the airport.”

“It’s a fast connection, Sylvia.”

He’s lying, thought Sylvia, time is slower on a fast train, not faster. Or is it? Sylvia often confused these things.

“I could have stayed on the train, but I didn’t want to leave you waiting.”

Could this really be happening? Terence held her at arm’s length, then leaned forward and planted a very light kiss on her cheek, hardly even touching her. Then he let go and jumped back onto the train. Sylvia stood looking at the now empty door, stunned that the happiest day in months had turned into the unluckiest day of her life. Bridget from college? Terence had never mentioned her before.

The guard blew his whistle, and Sylvia knew she must act. She jumped onto the train a moment before the door closed.

She shoveled more coal into the furnace. Sweat broke out on her forehead, and she wiped it away with her sleeve. That left a black streak of coal dust and soot across her face, but she no longer cared. What was there left to care about now? Only to make the engine go faster. The faster the better.

She looked back. The carriages were still rolling behind her, but without power they had fallen so far back they looked like they were hardly moving. Free of the carriages, the engine’s speed ramped up dangerously. The wheels rattled over the points, making the entire engine vibrate alarmingly.

“Ma’am, it’s no use,” said the driver.

Sylvia pulled the gun from her blouse and pointed it at his chest. “I said faster.”

“We can’t go faster,” he said, raising his chained hands, “we could burn every bit of coal at once, but at this speed, every extra kilometer per hour takes more and more.”

She looked out of the train’s forward windows. The tracks ahead had compressed so much she felt that she could reach out and touch the horizon. If she couldn’t go faster, she would… what? They screamed past a signal light, flashing red. The driver said something about a hard right turn ahead. They had to slow down. She wouldn’t fall for it! Everyone had lied to her all day. Terence, Bridget, the conductor, that annoying woman in fur hat. Everyone. Terence had paid for his lies, and the train driver was lying too.

“Faster, or I’ll shoot,” she said. He circled around ahead of her and pushed at the controls. The train didn’t speed up noticeably.

“Please,” said the driver, “it’s the best she can do!”

“We need less weight,” said Sylvia.



“It’s mass, not weight.”

“If you can’t make us go faster,” said Sylvia, “you’re nothing but weight. Dead weight.”

“Don’t shoot!”

Sylvia pulled the trigger. The gunpowder detonated, and the bullet shot towards the driver. He stepped aside and it slowly passed by his left shoulder, clunking heavily into a steel pipe. Sylvia looked at the gun, frowning. How had the driver been able to dodge the bullet?

Beyond the driver, out the small forward facing window, she saw the track curve to the right. They hit the curve, and the engine tipped over to the left. The last thing Sylvia remembered was her regret at killing the woman in the fur hat. She hadn’t really deserved it.

Chapter 11

A formless black void. The silence is broken by a voice that you recognize right away.

“Daniel,” said Camille, “are you back with us?”

I opened my eyes. Camille looked down at me, and as I focused on her face, she smiled. I could get used to waking up like this, I thought.

“What happened?” I groaned.

“We’re looking into it. What did you think of the thought experiment?”

“The one with the Telepathic Drop Monkeys made a lot of sense,” I said, “but the one with the train…”

“Yes?” Dr. Hooper prompted from the other side of the recovery room.

“I don’t know. It was too weird for me. She should have known what Terence was like.”

“What about the physics?” asked Camille.

“The physics?” I thought back through the simulation. “The speed of light was…” I thought harder “… slower than the speed of sound?”

“It’s a radical change.”

“Sylvia didn’t understand it, and I couldn’t concentrate during the simulation. There was too much emotion in her memories, and then it would cut out when she wanted to look at an approaching train, and then emotion would take over again. Then when she killed Terence…”

I paused. Dr. Hooper said “Yes?”

“Actually I don’t remember. I remember Sylvia remembering having killed Terence, and other people, but I can’t think how she did it.”

“But did you notice that we skipped forward past the entire middle part of the story?”

I stared at Dr. Hooper. “No. Not at the time. But now you mention it, I remember you discussing it before the simulation started.” And then I remembered something else, something that Camille had said, something that stung. I looked back to Camille, and she saw the look on my face. She smiled, and winked at me with the eye that Dr. Hooper couldn’t see. It wasn’t much, but it let me relax.

“So, the simulation was a success,” declared Dr. Hooper. “It doesn’t matter what we change within the story, as long as we feed the right memories later, we can skip over even important events and the participant doesn’t notice.”

“But I know you skipped forward,” I said.

“Only after the end of the simulation.”

“True. Just so you know, I never once believed that I was Sylvia. When I was Gareth, I accepted that was me, and the things that happened to him were actually happening to me. I felt like the decisions he made were decisions I wanted to make. With Sylvia, I just sat back and let her get on with things.”

“Of course,” said Hooper, “we tailored Gareth to fit you as closely as possible. He was about your age, male, even following in his father’s footsteps, and using his father’s influence to get his job.”

“That isn’t anything like me,” I protested.

“No? So what are you still doing here in the capital?”

I looked at Camille again. “I’m not sure.”

“Sylvia’s story is an old template from a twentieth century thriller,” said Hooper, “Camille has been playing with the physics, but it’s totally out of date otherwise. It wasn’t meant to match your personality or aspirations.”

“I must admit,” I said, using the opportunity to move the conversation on, “I didn’t understand the physics.”

“You’ve read about these things in science fiction novels though,” said Camille, “all about relativity. Time dilation when approaching relativistic speeds, the impossibility of reaching light speed due to increasing mass, length contraction, relative simultaneity, that kind of thing.”

“Sure,” I said, “I’ve read about them. That doesn’t mean I understand them.”

“I’ll leave you two to finish up here,” said Hooper, “Camille, next time you must ask before you schedule your own time on the computer. Mr. Hamilton, it’s been a pleasure. I hope to see you back here again some time,” she looked pointedly at Camille and then back to me, “in a professional capacity.”

Dr. Hooper swept out of the room. Camille began unstrapping me from the chair. “Are you in trouble?” I asked.

“No,” said Camille, “Sarah is just jealous.”

“Of what?”

“I can control the computer better than she can. It’s a talent, of course, but I’ve practiced hard, and much more than she knows. I can play the story simulations on the fly, and the in situ time and memory manipulations are getting easier for me. I wanted to make Sylvia more convincing for you, but Sarah took over, and the whole thing was a disaster.”

“Dr. Hooper said it was a success.”

“I wanted you to grok relativity. She just wanted to play with your memory. She did nothing new, and learned nothing new. We already know that I can feed in memories in real time, when needed, from an existing template. Skipping forward to the last act isn’t clever, not when the interim events are predetermined.”

Oh, I thought, I’d been quite impressed. I tried to remember the missing acts of the simulation, and couldn’t. Terence had died. And the woman with the hat. What else?

“It’s all an illusion,” I said, “I only remember things that I experienced in real time within the simulation. The rest are simulated memories.”


“And… I remember you saying I wasn’t your boyfriend. Just a friend.”

“Oh, Daniel,” she said, and leaned in for a deep, reassuring kiss. When we broke apart she continued, “I had to tell Sarah that. I can’t tell her we are an item, because if we were, that would break all the professional conduct clauses in my contract.”

“So you are in trouble.”

“Really, don’t worry about it.”


We walked through the clinic, a professionally appropriate distance apart, and out the front doors. The evening air was cool and fresh, and the sun had just dipped behind the buildings on the opposite side of town. I walked ahead of Camille, to hail a taxi from the curb. As I reach the sidewalk, a long black sedan pulled up beside me. I stepped back. The door opened, and my father appeared. He didn’t leave the car completely, only stepping out with one foot, and he leaned on the top of the door.

“Hello David,” I said. I wasn’t surprised to see him. In fact, I wondered why it had taken him so long to turn up. I never remembered him having so much patience.

“Hello son,” he said. “I’m in the capital for the weekend, and I was just passing by, so I thought I’d stop to say hi.”

“It’s Thursday,” I said.

“For a long weekend.”

“How did you know I’d be here?”

“Ah, hello Camille,” my father said, looking over my shoulder. “Lovely to meet you again. You’ve obviously met Camille too, I see. She changed my life, I can tell you.”

I glanced back at Camille, and somehow her smile set me at ease. Her smile always had that effect.

“Do you have someone following me?” I asked.

“Dr. Hooper called me. Come on, let’s go for dinner.”

“I have plans,” I said.

“Your plans can come too. My treat.”

“It’s fine,” said Camille, “you two go ahead. Just call me later, Daniel.”

Chapter 12

I’d always hated my father’s taste in cars, but I found the interior of the sedan very comfortable. I sat back and stared out of the window, avoiding my father’s eye. We rode in silence for a few minutes.

“It’s quite an experience, I told you.”

I nodded.

“I too returned for some, um, extra sessions.”

I turned. “Really?”

“Yes. It’s quite educational. It teaches you,” he paused, searching for a word, “things.”

“Right. What did you learn?”

“About myself. I learned about myself.” He shook his head. “There is good and bad in everything, in everyone. Of course, you don’t see that about yourself. Not until you see yourself from the outside.”

I wondered what simulations he’d experienced, but I let him continue. He didn’t. Now it was his turn to stare vacantly out of the window.

“David,” I said, “are you happy?”


“Are you happy?”

“I don’t understand.”

“What don’t you understand? You sent me out here to the capital, and want me to get into politics. If I’m to follow in your footsteps, I want to know I’ll be happy to do so.”

“You don’t do my job to be happy,” he said, “you do it because it is the right thing to do. I’m happy when I help people, and I’m happy when I do a good job. Isn’t everyone happy when they do a good job? Also some things make me happy, but passingly. Winning an election, the applause at the end of a speech, the perks of the office. But there is sacrifice, and there is compromise. I’m not my own man.”

“So tell me, what would you do differently?”

“I don’t know how to put it, son. It’s personal. And this is what the simulations showed me. The simulations are personal, almost intimate. You’re vulnerable, and the computer sees that, and plays off that. It’s almost sensual. The person running your simulation gets closer to the truth of your being than anyone before.”

Was that my connection with Camille? Had she come to know me, the real me, during the thought experiments? And had I come to know her in a similar way? The connection must be different, as I only saw her mind through the filter of how she had perceived and worked with mine.

And, the thought struck me, had she the same connection with my father?

“Who ran your simulation?” I asked. “Camille?”

“No, she just did the setup.”

And then I understood.

“You’re having an affair with Dr. Hooper,” I said. “You told me you’d been under for a week, but no simulation lasts that long. It doesn’t have to. You stayed a week here in the capital to be with her.” Just like I had stayed with Camille.

Other things made sense now. Dr. Hooper calling my father to tell him I was there. And Dr. Hooper not making a deal out of Camille spending time with me, as Camille knew about her and my father.

“Is this your sacrifice?” I asked, my voice dropping to a disgusted whisper, “running away to the capital to cheat on mum?”

“Yes,” he said, with more conviction than I expected. “I loved your mother when I married her, but we all change. Thirty five years will do that. She’s talked about separation before, you know, but we decided to stick together, to make it work. Why? Because of my position. I have to set an example, and to do my job, I have to get reelected. I’ve never cheated on on her before, though the opportunity has presented itself many times.

“But what about you? Your mother tells me about you, and how every time she talks you’re with different girl, in a different city. I know you’re happy! Right? Who wouldn’t be? No responsibilities, just waltzing around the country, with your sex and drugs and rock and roll. Where is your sacrifice?

“And son, this is what the thought experiment taught me. Not everyone has to sacrifice personal happiness to do their job.”

“I thought you said you were a poor black man.”

“I can say anything I want. The truth is that I thought everyone should be working as hard as I do, always striving to make political progress, to change society, to keep moving things forward. If that isn’t your ultimate concern, fine, but your ultimate concern should be ultimate. If you aren’t sacrificing something, be it a relationship or money or opportunity or your happiness, you aren’t working hard enough.

“And then I did the simulation. I was a man who loved his wife, and he wanted nothing more than to be happy with her, and for her to be happy. Society expected him to have to sacrifice time with his wife to do extra hours at work. He didn’t need to do extra work to earn a living, but it was expected of him, in his line of work, that if he didn’t put in hours and hours of unpaid overtime, he’d lose his job.

“And I designed this society, of course. If you need to work eighty hours a week to get by, you should just do that. I didn’t state that explicitly, but the computer worked it out from my assumptions. That is my life, you see? I spend way less time on my own happiness, and on my own life, than I spend on my job, and on fund raising, and on campaigning. It’s expected, and I expect it of myself, and I expect it of other people.”

The car pulled up outside of a restaurant, and a silhouette opened the door from the outside. My father stepped out, and I shuffled across the expansive rear seat to follow him out the same door. The restaurant, called Le Cirque Nord, was a few steps up from the establishments I’d taken Camille, even when spending my father’s money.

My father marched in through the front door, nodded at the maitre de, and led me over to an empty table for two. We sat down, and within a minute my father’s wine glass had been filled, without him asking or communicating with anyone.

“Your mother is a fine woman,” he said in a low voice that wouldn’t carry to other tables, “but she deserves someone better than me. She sacrificed as much as I have, even to the point of her own career, all for my career. Except it wasn’t for my career, it was for my happiness. And what did I do in return? I sacrificed my happiness, and her happiness, for the greater good. Whatever that means.

“See how blind I was? The very thing she thought was worth sacrificing for, I sacrificed that for something else. And then, when she realized the error, and wanted to try a separation, for her own happiness again, I convinced her to sacrifice that too. The tournedos rossini are worth it, by the way, froi gras in spades.”

I blinked, and looked down at the menu that had somehow appeared in my hands without me noticing.

“I… yes. You order dinner for me.” I closed the menu and laid it across the confusing rows of knives and forks in front of me. “I don’t understand. You wanted me to follow you into politics, and expected me to give up my entire life, everything I’ve worked for over the past ten years, to do so.”


“But now you are warning me against sacrificing my own happiness to do so?”

“Back in the car I thought you might actually agree to it.” He sighed. “A week ago, when we spoke, I’d just got home from the Thought Experiment Group myself. I knew it would appeal to you, and for some reason the most important thing in my mind right then was trying to convince you to do what I did. To do a simulation, and to follow me into politics. I don’t know why I suddenly thought I should convince you, but I did.”

I took a sip of my white wine. I’d never tasted anything quite so smooth. “Go on.”

“But a lot has changed in a week! All these thoughts, sloshing about in my brain, started crystalizing into something coherent. I don’t understand it myself. I don’t ever remember thinking so clearly. It’s like I’ve only just found out that I can think for myself.

“I came by to talk to you this evening, as Sarah told me you were at the clinic, but then I didn’t know where to begin. And then you were the one to ask me if I was happy. It’s like you knew what I wanted to say.”

“The thought experiments can be educational,” I said.

“Life changing.”

“Yes. They’re designed that way. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, son. I love my job. It’s all I know. But from here on out, I’m going to take more time to get to know the new me. If that means spending more time with Sarah, in the clinic or otherwise, that’s what I’m going to do.”

“And mum?”

“I think she already knows. She’s seen how much I’ve changed this past week. She knows something has happened, though I didn’t say what, and she told me to go for it.”

“That doesn’t sound like mum.”

“We’ve all had a crazy week. The quail, please.” The waiter drifted in and out of the conversation. “Tell me, what have you been doing here?”

“This and that,” I said without conviction. “Just hanging out.” I didn’t feel like discussing my life with my father, no matter how much he’d spilled in my direction.

“With Camille?”

“Yes, with Camille.”

“Who else?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Do you have any other friends here in the capital?”

“No. It’s not a big music town. I’ve been to some museums. Haven’t you been checking the credit card history?”

And then? I don’t remember what happened then. We finished dinner though, as I remember going back to my hotel alone.

Chapter 13

I do remember a conversation with Camille. We were in a place.

“Have you ever had anyone come out of a simulation,” I said, “and think they are still in a simulation?”

“Of course not,” she said, “the simulations just aren’t that convincing.”

“But is that by design, or by a limitation of the technology?”

“The computer constantly dims the subject’s awareness of details, the same restriction of reality checking that happens in dreams. It’s a well understood process. You know that children under the age of about eight haven’t developed that capability yet? When a little girl is pretending she is a princess, she actually believes she is a princess. Her brain won’t say ‘Wait a second, am I really a princess?’ She just goes with it.”

“I used to be the same,” I said, “but not with princesses.”

“Every child is like that, up to a certain point. They play make-believe. Older kids look down on that, not remembering what it was like. And yet every night, when they dream, their brain is doing the same thing.”

“And you do the same for adults in the simulation.”

“Yes. But when they get out, they remember the simulation, and then do a reality check. They know right away that none of the details looked right.”

“So the only thing that makes them sure they are back in the real world is… what? That it feels more real than the simulation?”

“Not just the world, but also their memories. The memories from the simulation are totally different than real memories.”

“True. But I’m concerned there’s nothing distinctive. There’s only, as far as I can tell, a sliding scale of what the brain is happy to accept as real, based on the quality of simulation.”

“And the suppression of reality checking.”

“And that.”

“But Daniel,” Camille put on a childish voice, “how do we know that the entire universe isn’t just a computer simulation in an even bigger universe which is also just a computer simulation?”

“I’m not worried about that,” I said, “I’m more concerned that I wouldn’t know if I was still in a more limited simulation. As soon as it is possible to not know you are in a simulation, it’s impossible to ever be sure you aren’t in a simulation. Did that make sense? As soon as it is possible to not know you are in a simulation…”

“You aren’t.”

“But how do you know?”

“Because I brought you out of your last simulation.”

“So how do you know you’re not in another simulation?”

“Because I know the technology inside out, and I know that there’s no way you could be a simulation, Daniel. You’re far too human to be a computer program.”

“Really? I’ll take that as a compliment. But what if there are better computers outside of this simulation?”

“No computer has ever passed the Turing Test. Human behavior is too complex, and there are studies that show… but hey, maybe we are in the same simulation!”

“Just the two of us? I’ve talked to loads of other people. Last night I had a long conversation with my father in the car and the restaurant. He wasn’t a computer program. He was different than I remember, but not a computer.”

“So he is in the simulation too.”

“And I spoke to Dr. Hooper too.”

“Sarah is in the simulation as well then. Who else?”

“Everyone else I’ve talked to.”

“And who is that?”

“You know…” and as I thought about it, I couldn’t remember having any long conversations since I’d arrived in the capital. The guys in the band, I’d only sent messages online, not talking in real time.

“I have an idea.” Camille grabbed my hand. “We need to visit the clinic.”

“But it’s late,” I protested.

“This’ll be worth it.”


A formless black void, accompanied by silence. The light fades up, and you are in a white room. You try to remember your life. Daniel. Your name is Daniel. Oh, that’s me. First person it is.

I look about, and I see a table set against a wall. The wall has two slots, one marked “Out” and one marked “In”. A huge book rests on the table, alongside a set of chunky pens.

I pull up a chair and sit down. It seems the right thing to do. I open the book at random and start flipping through the pages. There are many pages of Chinese of some sort. I don’t understand a single character. Interspersed are complicated instructions in English, multi-branched trees of arrows of inputs and outputs, with lists of possible outcomes, and looping arrows, and page numbers which I presume take me to other instructions. I turn back to the very first page and find a simple passage in English.

“When you receive a paper, follow the instructions in this book. Once you have the resulting characters, draw them on the back of the piece of paper and slide it through the Out slot.”

That sounds simple enough. I look about the room, but see nothing else to hold my interest.

A paper slides in through the In slot and lands on the desk. I pick it up, and find that it only contains one character. I turn through the pages of the book until I find that character. I find only two options. I pick one at random, and copy the two characters it tells me to write in return. I slot the paper into the Out slot, and wait.

An indeterminate time passes, and then a new paper arrives. This one has five characters. I page through the book until I find a page that tells me how to deal with a paper containing more than four characters. I look through pages and pages of five and six character strings until I find one that looks similar to the one on the paper. I turn to the suggested page, and follow more instructions, breaking the string down into two unequal parts, making notes on the paper of the page numbers when it tells me to. And again until I have even more page numbers. I do a series of complicated maths on those numbers, somehow remembering the tricks from high school. I turn to the pages suggested, and copy out the characters in the required order.

Satisfied, I pass the paper into the slot.

As far as thought experiments go, this one takes more brain work than the others. I’m not thinking about what I’m doing, just following instructions, but they are hard to get through.

A new sheet of paper. This one has a many long lines of characters. I begin flipping through the pages of the book again. I suspect that the book has many more pages than the visible size would suggest. I find a page about multiple lines of characters, and follow the instructions. This task takes hours, but finally I judge the results to be correct, as far as the instructions go.

I’m surprised I didn’t give up half way through, but feel that I’m learning something important. I’m just not sure what.

More paper. More answers. More paper. I begin to suspect the simulation isn’t running in real time, or else days must be passing.

I speak for the first time. “Computer? Camille?”


“I think I’m done here.”


A formless black void. You’ve been here so many times that you’re now totally comfortable with it. You wait for the absence of light to be absent.



“Wake up.”

“I’m here.” I opened my eyes, and had a sense of deja vu. Camille looked down at me, and I felt a sudden sense of belonging. Surely everything was right with the world.

“The Chinese Room,” she said.

“Which is meant to tell me what?”

“You were having a conversation with a Chinese man. Except for how long it took you to reply, he thought you were a real person.”

“I was a real person.”

“But you don’t understand Chinese.”

“Of course not.”

“And yet, as far as the Chinese man was concerned, you spoke fluent Chinese.”

“I just followed the instructions.”

“Imagine you were having a conversation with someone, and they responded in perfect English, and they acted exactly like a real person. Do they understand English or not?”

Was this a trick question? “Yes?”

“But what if you found out that they didn’t understand anything you said, and just used a super fast computer to tell them what to say?”

“Then no.”

“And what if they didn’t just use a computer to reply, but also a set of instructions on how to react to human body language. And also a set of instructions on what to do in social situations. And a set of instructions on how to move their muscles to control their body when kissing someone who had said a certain set of words.”

“There are computers that can do this?”

“The question is that if there were computers that could follow the set of instructions, and convince you they were a real person, would they truly understand human language, human interaction, and human emotion?”

“No. It’s just following instructions.”

“Even if it has convinced you that it is human?”

“My opinion on the way their brain works isn’t important,” I said.

“So what is?”

“Camille, if I was concerned that I was living in a simulation… and I’m not saying I am, but if I was concerned… what you’re asking me now isn’t going to put me at my ease.”

She leaned down to kiss me, and I immediately kissed her back. Did I just react like a machine? I thought. Did I just complete a pre-programmed response to the stimulus? I guess I did, but that was programmed into my emotions and hormones, things that only humans had.

“Which proves that this isn’t a simulation,” she said, as though it was a game. “Don’t you see? If this was a simulation, one that was meant to convince you it was reality, why would I be trying to convince you it might be a simulation? That would be counterproductive.”

“Are you trying to convince me you might be a computer program as some kind of double bluff?”

“You’re funny.”

“Look, I don’t really appreciate this,” I sat up and gripped the edge of the bed. “I’ve got this weird feeling, and it’s only been growing over the past few days.”

“It’s nothing,” said Camille, “take a break from the simulations and you’ll be fine.”

“What if this entire thing is a thought experiment? See if you can fall in love with a set of instructions played out by a computer.”

“Fall in love?”

“Yes, like a complex version of early internet dating, where it turned out the girl of your dreams was a fifty year old pervert called Frank.”


“Yes, and when…” Camille cut off my planned sentence by throwing her arms around me and kissing me over and over again. I didn’t know how to respond to this, so ended up putting my arms around her and returned the kisses.

She finally pulled away. “You’re not the only one who has been feeling strange recently. I love you too, Daniel.”

As I said before, the minimum requirements for a Long Term Serious Relationship are set, but what makes a Dream Girl is open. I’d never considered that a science nerd could fascinate me so deeply. I posited that she could be a computer program, and that the whole of reality could be a computer simulation running a thought experiment to see if I could fall in love with a set of sufficiently complex instructions… and she thought that was endearing?

Which is why I suddenly knew for a fact that she wasn’t a computer program. Nobody would have programmed a computer to act like that!

Chapter 14

I made some more arrangements with the band, but promised I’d only be staying in the capital for a few more weeks. Then I’d be back, and would continue with the rest of the tour. I called Fraser, from Third Place Winners, and told him I had some ideas for their new album, and would be happy to start working directly after the tour. But how would they like to come down to the capital for a few weeks? I’d line up some special shows, and we’d be able to work in a local studio.

Camille told me to move my bags and stay with her while I was in the capital, and not keep the hotel room on my father’s account.

And I told my father that I hadn’t said no to politics as yet, but that I was spending some time to work out what I wanted. He told me he understood, and that I should only sacrifice something if someone else wasn’t sacrificing something else for the thing I was sacrificing. I told him yes, he’d been over all that with me before, and thanks.

I hadn’t really changed my mind about being a musician. It was who I was as much as what I did for a job, but something about my father’s sudden change made me sit up and take notice. I’d always thought that once you got into politics, you’d find your voice, and your constituency, and then you trundled along that path until you died or retired. And here was my father, willing to stop, take stock, and head in a different direction. The change seemed both political and personal, which made me realize that politics is personal. The politician you are depends on the personality you have. I thought my personality would be subsumed by my identity as a politician, and I’d become just like all the rest. But now, watching my father change? Maybe I could start out differently.

Which, when I finally thought hard about my father’s initial offer, must have been my father’s plan all along. He didn’t want me to follow in his path, he just wanted to give me the opportunity to make a path of my own.

So what kind of politician would I be? Putting aside the traditional left and right distinctions, and party membership, how would my personality express itself in my public image and the causes I supported? I didn’t have a strong personality, I knew that. I was never a great frontman in a band, and was happy to step back and let others lead. I’d provide solid backing, and solid material, and solid lyrics. No, I was more than solid. I was very good. I had a keen sense for business, and a pretty good bullshit detector. And I liked logic, and technology, and a bit of science. Surely these traits would be good in a legislator? In the studio, I would be the one to work on a problem until I cracked it, be it a recording issue or a musical transition or a line of lyrics, or even a dispute between other musicians. I knew the tools, and I knew the tricks, and I enjoyed the challenge of learning new tools and new tricks.

And talking of enjoying challenges, I had a new one. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t living in a simulation.

I spent an entire morning and afternoon, while Camille went to work, sitting at a table in her apartment, scribbling on sheets of paper with chunky marker pens. I made lists of qualities, of real life and simulations, data points and ideas. I made mind maps of all the things I’d learned over the past week. I drew lines between the sheets, and even wrote small lines of poetry, or lyrics, to help me remember:

As both of these fly around, Light travels slower than sound, Though I don’t know the reason for it.

I wrote this poem to remind me, That once I heard a crash behind me, And then I turned around and saw it.

I looked up how to design an experiment. One thing that stood out was the idea of falsifiability. I had to come up with something that had the possibility of being proved wrong. So how to test if I live in a simulation? This was more tricky than I imagined. My first idea was simple, but flawed.

I could kill myself.

If I lived in a simulation, I would awaken in the real world. That is, unless the simulation was designed in a way that I would die in the real world if died in the simulation. This would be the best way to make simulated death indistinguishable from real death, and in doing so render the test non-valid from the point of view of falsifiability.

If I lived in the real world, I would die. And I wouldn’t know the answer. Not good. The suicide option was very flawed.

I decided I needed help with the experimental part, and would wait for Camille to return home to talk it over with her. Meanwhile I made a final list of the main reasons I suspected I was in a simulation.

“You’re still worried about this?” Camille asked.

“Not worried,” I said, “just curious.” The truth is that I was worried. If this was still a simulation, and Camille and I found a way to stop it, there was no guarantee that we would find each other again in the real world.

“Okay, let’s hear what you have.”

I gathered my papers “First, I suspect it is possible to create a simulation convincing enough that someone inside it doesn’t know they are in a simulation. This means that the chances are fifty-fifty that we are inside a simulation, even if it is running on some super alien hardware and contains an unconstrained universe.”

“Go on.”

“Second, there is no continuity of consciousness.”

“You’ve been sleeping?”

“More than that. When starting up a simulation, my memories are restricted. There are times when I don’t remember who I am. I’m tricked into thinking other sets of memories are my own. So see point one. There’s only a fifty percent chance that the memories that I have now are real.”

“Where did you get the fifty percent number?”

“I have equal evidence either way. As in, no evidence either way. And no way to test it.”

“I don’t think that means what you think it means. If we have no evidence either way, we might as well be Last Thursday Young Earth Creationists.”

“What is that?”

“If fossils prove that dinosaurs lived sixty five millions of years ago, that doesn’t hamper claims that God made the Earth only six thousand years ago. He just created the Earth with fossils intact. Using that logic, God created the world last Thursday, but created it with our memories of last Wednesday intact.”

“So this is my third point,” I said, pressing on, “we have to look for noticeable discontinuities and limits. My memories go back all the way to when I was a kid, just like yours, but do you notice a difference in the quality of those memories at any point?”

Camille frowned at that. “I don’t think so…”

“It turns out that I have noticed a change. It started over a week ago, when I came out of my first simulation. My memories since then seem… different. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is different.”

“Everyone feels different after their first simulation,” said Camille, “I know I did.”

“Really? Do you have evidence on that?”

“Evidence of that, do you mean?”


“The thought experiment experience is a life changing event,” she said, “that’s how it’s meant to be. For you, for me, for your father, for Sarah, for everyone.”

“My fourth point,” I continued, “is how good life is.”

“Life is good,” said Camille, giving me a kiss.

“But life is too good. Enough to make me feel too comfortable. I’m a successful musician, you’re a successful scientist. My father is a noble politician who is changing the world for the better. The world seems peaceful. When there’s only good news, I’m suspicious.”

“We’re in the capital city of the greatest nation on earth,” said Camille, “of course it feels too comfortable.”

“But I’ve not seen any evidence of any hardship in the city, as though it’s specifically designed to make me as accepting as possible, so I won’t question why things are the way they are. It’s like the thought experiments you run for the politicians.”

“That’s not evidence of anything.”

“Which brings me to my fifth point. The limits. How big is this simulation? If I set off in one direction, and keep going, will I ever reach the edge? Or is it like a sphere or a torus? Will I circle around the entire world, and the simulation is perfect the entire way? Will it create new scenery for me everywhere I travel?”

“Our simulations can do that. It generates new land quite easily.”

“And if I go out and talk to hundreds of people in turn, will it create new personalities each time?”

“As long as you meet one person at a time, a human operator should be able to make hundreds of new people, one after the other.”

“And each one of them would be able to pass the Turing Test?”

“Individually, yes.”

“So this could be our first experiment!”

“Daniel, don’t tell me you are going to try this.”

“Not just me, you can help too.” I smiled weakly, not sure how to spin this. “This is the next thought experiment, you see. You and I know we’re not computer programs, right?”


“Because if we weren’t sure,” I said, “nothing else matters. If I am nothing but computer code, and I’m having this conversation, the computer is already powerful enough that nothing I can do to test it will prove anything. But as I said, I’m sure I’m a real person, and that you’re not a computer program either.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Didn’t I say that line to her, once?

“So the two of us find one person each, at the same time, and we chat with them. Then we’ll find two more people and chat with them. Then we’ll get all our people to talk to each other, and we’ll have four people talking, and passing the Turing Test, and us two, all at the same time.”

“That’s your plan? A good computer with a team of four or five people running the simulation would be able to handle that.”

“But what if it can’t? All we have to do is get one negative result! Then we’ll know if we are in a simulation, and the limits of the simulation.”

Chapter 15

We left the apartment long after dark and took a taxi across to the far side of the central city area, almost to the suburbs. We stopped at the address I’d given the driver, and got out by a bar with a small neon sign that read “Edge Case”.

“What is this place?” asked Camille. I hadn’t told her where we were going, just to test that my memories matched up with the current reality.

“I play here every year,” I said, “so I know the locals. If we want to find people to talk to us, this is the best place I know in the capital.”

A group of smokers stood outside, fogging up the doorway. I pushed past them, pulling Camille behind me. The bouncer, whom I recognized as Ramon, the owner of the bar, stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.

“Ten dollars.”

I’d always visited as an artist before, so I’d forgotten that it might cost money. I fumbled through my pockets, unsure if I had any cash, but found enough for both myself and Camille.

“Thanks Ramon,” I said as I gave it to him.

“Do I know you?”

“Dan Hamilton.”

His eyes went wide. “Shit Dan, I didn’t know you were passing through.” He pushed the money back into my jacket pocket.

“I’m spending some time in the capital,” I said, “how could I stay away?”

“You know who’s on tonight? No. If so, you wouldn’t have missed the first half. Talented Fletcher.”

“Sweet,” I said, “I’ll catch them backstage after the set.”

We emerged into a dark, low ceilinged bar, and turned left to the room with the stage. Through that door the place suddenly felt crowded. The DJ played some lively indy music to keep up the energy throughout the break. Across the venue from the door was what I knew to be an unofficial VIP area, a tiny balcony with just enough space for a row of eight tall stools, set close behind a rail. The lighting tech sat at one end, and only let people sit up there if he knew them. I spotted three empty stools in the middle, but didn’t recognize the lighting guy.

“Can I come up?” I called over the music.

The lighting guy simply frowned at me. A young man on one of the stools leaned over and said something into his ear, something I had no chance to hear down where I stood with Camille. The lighting tech nodded at me, and the young man shuffled his stool back to let us pass. I let Camille go up first and she took the furthest free stool, leaving enough space for me.

“Daniel Hamilton?” The young man had floppy hair and glasses with tiny lenses.

“Yeah,” I put out my hand.

“Steen Johnson,” he said, shaking my hand, “bass in Talented Fletcher.”

“Great! I’ve not seen you guys before, but I love Out Of My Mind.”

“Got to get back on stage.”

He left us and disappeared into the crowd below. I turned to Camille.

“These guys are good.”

“I’ve never seen a band play live before.”



“So this is your first gig. I hope it’s special.”

The band came out and the crowd got into it right away. I spotted dozens of phones in the air snapping photos or grabbing video. It took me a while, but I remembered the singer and guitarist was called Jean. Jean… something. Maybe Jean Fletcher. Steen on bass. I had no idea about the drummer. They played a strong set, though I only knew one album of theirs, and most of it was new material to me. I looked over at Camille often, and she seemed caught up by the energy.

Jean introduced half of the songs, and bantered back and forth with the audience. He had a relaxed ease on stage that reminded me why I let others do that job. After about thirty minutes he seemed to go totally off script.

“We’ve got someone in the audience tonight who I’ve never met,” he said, “but I’m a big fan of his music. Where is he, Steen?”

Steen pointed up at the balcony, and the lighting guy shone a torch in my direction. I waved.

“Dan Hamilton!” shouted Steen. The audience cheered, and Jean played a riff on the guitar. Where did I know that?

It was my riff! How could I have forgotten? Everyone else knew it from the TV commercial, as the audience erupted in craziness, joining in with the bass line by shouting “Dum, dum da da dum.”

“As a tribute, we thought, you know, we’d play Paint a Picture. Our first time on stage, you know, but we’ve jammed around with it on the tour bus. All rough around the edges. Except, you know, if we get help from the guy who wrote it.”

Steen repeated “Daniel, Daniel…” into his mic, and the audience joined in.

I turned to Camille while taking off my jacket. “I’ll be right back!”

I climbed up and stood on the rail, turning to face away from the audience and stage. I closed my eyes and spread my arms wide. I let myself lose balance, and tipped backwards. Dozens of hands caught me effortlessly, and I felt them passing me hand over hand towards the stage. I arrived there feet first, and Steen and Jean reached down to help me up.

“Are you okay?” Jean asked.

“Never better!” I shouted. Jean picked up his spare guitar and handed it to me. After some unplugging and plugging of jacks, we had both guitars singing. I hit the riff once, and Jean repeated it. The audience screamed as the bass and drums kicked in.

Paint a Picture wasn’t a very long song in the recorded version, but we let in run on with an extended jam before the last chorus. The “gotta come true” line left enough space for mini guitar solos between each repeat, and Jean and I took turns. Jean was, by far, a better lead guitarist than I was, and with any other song he would have shown me up easily. But this was my song. I’d spent days writing just this one small section, trying out hundreds of variations in the studio before settling on the final version. Now all those variations came back to me. After a minute of this, Jean simply repeated every variation I did, but an octave up the frets. When I stopped, he stopped too, but Steen and the drummer carried on. We let them jam together then, and just chanted “gotta come true” over and over into the same mic.

We cranked out the final chorus, and ended in confused mess. The drummer and I stopped as I normally would on in my own show, and Jean and Steen played the first part of the chorus again. Thankfully the audience had cranked their cheering up to eleven by that point, and nobody cared when they simply faded out on discordant notes.

I passed Jean his guitar, high hived Steen, and turned to salute the drummer. As I did the last, I tipped backwards into the audience again. I returned to the mini balcony by the same method I’d made it to the stage, though I had to climb up the railings without too much help. I scrambled down next Camille, sweat draining down my face, my t-shirt drenched.

“That was unexpected,” I said.

“That was amazing,” she countered, eyes wide.

Talented Fletcher returned to their own material, and played out the set. During the encore Steen pointed at me, and the audience showed their appreciation one last time for the unplanned addition to the set list.

I led Camille through the crowd toward the back stage passageway, high-fiving everyone who noticed me pushing past. A roadie let us through, and we emerged back stage. I worked out the direction to the dressing room, and I found it as cramped and unimpressive as I remembered from last time I played the Edge Case. Jean and Steen sat on a dirty brown couch, the drummer nowhere to be seen.

“Epic,” said Jean, handing me a beer.

“Epic,” said Steen, who passed a beer to Camille.

“Yeah,” I agreed. I perched on the edge of a table, and Camille joined me.

“Thanks for coming up,” said Steen, “I told him I met you in the break there, and we both knew we had to get you on stage. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Not at all! I’ve been taking a break from touring for a while, so I had my fix tonight.”

“More than just a fix,” said Jean, “that was a moment.”

“A perfect picture,” quoted Steen, “gotta come true”

“This is Camille,” I said, and they smiled up at her. “Camille, Steen, Jean.”

“Hey hey,” said Jean.

“Camille is, indirectly, one of the reasons I’m taking a break.”

“You’re not going to go all Yoko Ono on us, are you?” Jean asked Camille.

“Um… what?” she looked to me for support.

“Leave them alone,” said Steen, “Dan isn’t going to abandon the cause, right?”

“I’m producing Third Place Winners,” I said, “and if that goes well, I’ll be doing more.”



“We’re looking for a producer,” said Jean, “and after tonight I know we can work together.”

“Sure,” I said, but I didn’t want to commit to anything, “let’s see how it goes with Third Place Winners first.”

“Epic,” said Steen, his enthusiasm suddenly making me feel old. He turned to Jean and they began to natter about the songs from the set that evening, and which ones would be on the next album.

“Hey Jean,” I said, interrupting them in one of their rare pauses, “I’ve forgotten the name of your drummer. Where is he?”

“Ante left with some girl,” said Jean.

“He never hangs around,” added Steen. “Let’s do this!” They both got up from the couch.

“Do what?” Camille asked.

“Merch table,” said Jean.

“Signing gear,” said Steen, following Jean out the door.

“Nice guys,” said Camille, breaking the silence. “Think they are human or computer?”

“What?” I said. I’d totally forgotten about the experimental nature of the trip to the bar! How could it have slipped my mind? The answer was simple, of course. I’d just had one of the most amazing live music experiences of my life. It felt so real, so compelling. Surely nothing like that could have been conjured up by any computer simulation. “They are human.”

“Or at least controlled by a human,” said Camille.

“The humans would have to be touring musicians,” I said.

“Didn’t you want to talk to more people at once?”

“Right. Let’s go find some others.”

For the rest of the night, after Jean and Steen had finished with their fans, we hung out in the bar. The show venue became a night club, and a whole other crowd came in, most not caring for the musicians sitting at a corner table. We chatted with the guys, and often someone else would drop by to say hi, mention they enjoy our music, join the conversation for a while, and then drift away. Jean and Steen were happy to chat away without Camille and I for long stretches of time, and were endlessly entertaining. I invited Ramon to join us, and he chatted for a while too. However, no matter whom I asked to join us, I never managed to have more than five people talking around the table at any one time, and that included Camille and me.

As we took a taxi back to her apartment, I brought this up with Camille.

“It could be a system restriction,” I said. “It knows never to let too many people interact at once.”

“But everyone passed as human, right?”

“As far as I could tell,” I said, “the audience could have been generated on the fly, and the other crowds. But don’t you find it strange that when there were two or three or four of us, people had no problem joining us to talk, and as soon as there were five of us, nothing I could do would convince anyone to join our table?”

“A group of five people can be intimidating.”

“This is why I wanted to come to a show venue. You saw how many fans these guys have, and how many people wanted to talk to me.”

“So what is the result of your experiment?”


“You can always try it again.”

“No I can’t. Whoever may be running the simulation knows what to expect, right? They can have as many people standing by as they want, ready to fill in and talk to us in a convincing manner.”

“That’s called special pleading,” Camille said with a yawn. “You make up reasons to discount your experiment when you don’t get the results you want.”

“If this is a thought experiment, to see if I can tell if I’m in a simulation, how do I know if I’m half way through already, and that I have all the information I need? Maybe I need to gather more evidence before testing again.”

“The half way point shouldn’t be taken literally,” said Camille, “sometimes you don’t get crucial information until later.”

I thought this over. How did I know what was crucial information or not? And how could I know at what point of the experiment I had reached? Alternatively, and probably, this was still reality. “So you think we should do the test again?”

“No, I think you should do a different test,” she said, “but don’t tell me what it is beforehand. Don’t tell anyone. Don’t even write it down. Make sure it is all in your head, and whoever is controlling the simulation will never know. They can restrict old memories, and insert new memories, but I’m sure they’ll not be able to read complex thoughts.”


“Then spring the test on me at the last second. Just do it. Whoever is running the simulation won’t have time to prepare.”


“If you break the simulation, you’ll know your reality isn’t real. If nothing out of the ordinary happens, you know reality is real.”

“Or the simulation is more solid than I can test.”

“In that case, it might as well be reality.”

Chapter 16

My father’s sedan pulled up outside the clinic, and I watched him wave to his driver as it pulled away. He strode into the clinic, and froze when he saw us all together. I stood with Camille and Dr. Hooper.

“I thought…” he began, but trailed off.

“It’s okay, David,” said Dr. Hooper, “I knew Daniel would be here. He asked me to call you.”

“Will you help me with something?” I asked him.

“With what?”

“I need to test something, and I need all four of us to do so. Camille?”

Camille led us into the debriefing room, and we sat around the conference table. I’d put pens and sheets of paper on the table.

“Have you been feeling different recently, dad?”

“You know I have,” he said.

“Since when?”

“Since the thought experiment.”

“Right. All four of us have taken part in some kind of simulation within the last few weeks, and since then our lives have changed. Do I have that straight?”

“Camille and I have done simulations in the past,” said Dr. Hooper, “and our lives didn’t change then.”

“True,” I said, “but the fact is that all four of us have the same kind of feeling, and only recently. We’re all disconnected from the past in some way.”

Camille nodded. Dr. Hooper and my father looked at each other, and nodded too.

“I’m not going to explain the test,” I said, “instead I’m just going to ask you to do what I say. Will you play along?”

More nods all round.

“I’m going to ask you to write about an event in your life, something which should be memorable. We’ll all think about the event, and write at the same time. Make it as personal and specific as possible, and write about how you felt at the time. We’ll all write where we can all see each other, out in the open.

“Dad, you write about your first driving test. Camille, you can write about your first day at high school. Dr. Hooper, could you write about your first foreign trip? And someone give me something to write about.”

“How about your first date?” sugested Camille.

“Okay. You all know what to do? Let’s get writing.”

I pulled a sheet of paper in front of me, and thought back to my first date. I thought hard. Slowly the memories came back to me.

“My first real date,” I wrote, “was with a girl called Stephanie. I’d noticed her at school, and I heard through a friend that she liked me. I was playing guitar in a practice room in the music department at school, and I saw her walk by the door. I always left the door partly open when my name wasn’t down on the practice room schedule, so if someone else wanted to use it they knew they could just ask. Or that is what I told other people if they asked. The real reason I left the door open was so people would see me and hear my music, and I dreamed that they would like it so much they’d want to hear more.

“I saw Stephanie walk past, and then a moment later she appeared again. She looked around the door and smiled. I stopped playing and said hi. She said hi back. I said do you need the room to practice and she said no, she was just walking past. I said do you play guitar and she said no, piano, and I said I play a bit of piano too, but guitar is my main thing.

“I asked if she wanted to meet some time, and play some music together. She said she’d like that, and that I should tell her when to meet. I said we should meet after school, but not in any practice room. I didn’t want to ask her to come to my parent’s house, but where else could we find a piano? I said we should meet at the music store in town. It wasn’t far from school, and if she needed I could drive her there. Stephanie laughed and said it was a date.

“That’s how I know that was my first date, because it was the first time anyone told me I was going on a date in advance of the date.”

I glanced across the table and saw Camille and my father writing their stories. I scanned the first few lines, and even with their messy upside down handwriting I was satisfied their stories seemed real. Then I turned to Dr. Hooper, sitting at the end of the table.

It looked like she was writing the same as the others, though had only managed to put down three short lines. But when I looked more closely, the sentences didn’t make sense. They were just random words, or fragments of words.

Camille noticed I’d stopped writing, and followed my gaze to Dr. Hooper’s paper.

“Sarah?” she said. Dr. Hooper didn’t respond. “Sarah!” Camille spoke louder this time, and my father stopped writing and turned his attention to us.

Suddenly Dr. Hooper’s head snapped up, and she looked back at us, startled. “Yes?”

“What are you writing?” I asked.

“I…” she looked down. “I’m writing…”

“Everything you remember from your first foreign trip?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.”

I reached over and pulled her paper to the middle of the table. I read it aloud. “Eat the school mother time cry. Practice school in the first guitar. Ouch like ache.”

“I don’t understand,” said my father. “It’s nonsense.”

“You’ve used words from my story,” said Camille, and then glanced over my paper. “From Daniel’s story too.”

“And mine,” said my father, underlining words on his own paper. “Ouch, like, and ache. Right here.”

Dr. Hooper’s eyes opened wide, and she looked at us in turn. Her mouth fell open, and her shoulders began to shake. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember writing this. I don’t remember any trip overseas.”

“Sarah, it’s okay,” Camille slipped out of her chair and put her arm around Dr. Hooper’s shoulders.

“I’m… this test…” Dr. Hooper stuttered. “I’m not real!”

“No,” I said immediately, “that wasn’t the test!”

“Then what?” I saw tears in her eyes, as well as panic.

“You are real. All four of us here are real people. But our memories? I don’t think they are real. I wanted to test the limits of reality, to see if we were in a simulation. If we are to believe we are in a real world, our memories must match up with this world. And when did this simulation begin? Maybe two or three weeks ago, maybe longer, but memories from further back should still be consistent with our current lives.

“I’ve asked you individually, and our memories from the last few weeks have been different compared to those from years ago, right? Which might mean those older memories aren’t real, but are constructed as and when we need to remember them. I wanted us to think hard about old memories in a controlled way, and see if they stood up to scrutiny. If we all did it openly, and then checked over each others’ stories, I thought we’d find inconsistencies.”

“But instead I found that I have no memories!” cried Dr. Hooper. “I’m just part of the simulation!”

“That’s not what it means,” said Camille. “It just means the computer running the simulation only has the power to create three sets of new memories at the same time.”

“Exactly,” I said. “There’s no telling how many real people are in the simulation at the moment, but I think there must be, at most, three technicians guiding the process, to create other lifelike human characters for us to interact with, or in this case, creating three sets of fake memories as required.”

“What are you talking about, son?”

“It’s complicated, dad, but I’m willing to bet that at any random time, there’s no way all four of us could head out into a random public place, pick four people at random and have four conversations, all at once. If the technicians running this simulation know what is going to happen in advance, they can prepare for it, but they obviously aren’t restricting our free will or reading our minds.”

“How do you know?” asked Dr. Hooper. “How do you know any of this?”

“If they wanted to, they could have stopped us doing this test before it began.”

“So why didn’t they?”

“I don’t know yet,” I admitted.

“I’m still not sure I understand,” said my father. “Are you trying to tell me I’m not really David Hamilton?”

“I don’t know who any of us are,” I said. “All I know is that we can’t rely on any memory that goes back before the last time we were in a simulation here at the clinic.”

“That is the cutoff point for all of us, isn’t it?” said Dr. Hooper. “We suppress memories when we take part in the thought experiment, and then when we come out, we accept the identity we remember about ourselves in the real world.”

“A discontinuity,” said Camille, leaving Dr. Hooper’s side and sitting down in her own chair again.

“Exactly,” I said. “Are we all on the same page here?”

“So who is David Hamilton?” asked my father. Asked the man who I considered my father. “Or is he just another part of… is this entire thing just another thought experiment?”

“Let’s test again,” I said. “Everyone swap this time. Dad, you do first day at high school. Dr. Hooper, you do first date. Which should Camille and I do?”

Dr. Hooper frowned, then said “You do first international trip, Camille write about your driving test.”

I began writing about my first trip out of the country. It took a long time for the memory to form, which I found interesting, because I’d thought about touring in different countries before. But was my first trip abroad part of a tour? No. I’d been on a ski-ing trip with my parents when I was maybe twelve years old. I started writing about that.

I completed a page. I stopped when I heard sobbing. Or laughing. I wasn’t sure which. I looked at Dr. Hooper, or “Sarah”, and this time she had a full page of coherent-looking writing. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and yet she was exhaling loudly and repeatedly in relief. This time her memories held up to scrutiny.

My father, or “David” as I tried to think of him now, had stopped writing after about half a page, and held his pen motionless. Camille was writing quickly, but only had a single sentence fully completed.

“Stop!” I said, and everyone looked to me. “What do you think?”

David blinked at me. “I was doing fine, and then my mind just went blank.”

“And the opposite for me,” said Camille, “it felt like I started writing straight away, but when you said stop, I knew I’d only just began.”

“The technicians are trying to cheat,” said Sarah. “One must have switched between David’s and Camille’s memories.”

Silence fell. We had nothing more to say, and nothing meaningful left to ask. We just looked at each other. What else could we do? I was now convinced that we were just participants in a simulation, and maybe the others thought so too. I felt totally empty. What parts of me were real, and what parts just inserted into my life? All I knew was that Camille and I had done this together. Camille and I had destroyed our faith in reality together. We made quite a team.

Finally Camille spoke. “We should have known this right from the start. David was right. This is all just a thought experiment. We had all the information, all of us. But our assumptions and intuition took us in the wrong direction. Only when we thought things through logically, and tested things systematically, did we reach the real outcome. Two of us were participants in thought experiments, and two of us designed them, and circumstances brought us together so neatly. But what is this thought experiment really about? Simply that we can’t be sure if we are participating in reality or not?”

“I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough,” I said. “If this really is the end of the thought experiment, they’ll bring us out.”

“And if not?” asked David.

“Then I’ll wait,” I said. “I’ll just wait here. You’re welcome to go on in this fantasy world, but I’m going to wait it out.”

Camille reached across the table and took my hand. “I’ll wait with you.”

“And you, Sarah?” asked David.

“I’ll wait for now,” she said, “and I would love for you to wait with me, David.”

As it happened, we didn’t have to wait very long.

Chapter 17

A formless black void, accompanied by silence. Attempt to move, and… “Ow!”

Normally when you try to move, when coming out of a simulation, it doesn’t work. This time pain spreads up your left arm. Something attached, embedded in the skin, it feels like it has ripped away. It really hurts.

Memories flood back, and you discover your true identity. Daniel, but not Daniel Hamilton. Daniel Westley. I’m Daniel Westley. There is an edge to this awakening, one that has been missing before. This must be reality. For the first time in weeks, subjectively, there is a sense of comfort, subjectively. Comfort in my person mentally, but not in my person physically.

An edge and a comfort. The pain in my left hand is fading to a dull ache. I move that arm across my body, and probe at my right arm. There are a number of tubes taped to my skin. It feels like there are needles inserted into my veins. I leave them alone for now. The rest of my body feels naked.

It is still dark. I reach up… is it up? I try to feel if I am laying down, or standing up. I guess I’m standing up. I find my eyes are covered by a thick gauze. I pull it away, and dim red light seeps through my eyelids. I open my eyes.

I’m standing in a glass case, and I’m looking out into a dark room with a sloped ceiling. The wall slopes up to meet it… and then my perception shifts. I’m not standing, and I’m not really laying down. Instead I’m at a forty five degree angle. The room is square, four meters to a side, and lit by spotlights shining up at the white ceiling from each corner. My glass case is set into one wall, and set into the other three walls are three more cases, their glass darkened, their contents hidden.

I push against the glass, and it slowly gives way. Fresh air sweeps over my body, making me shiver. Did I shiver in the simulations? I don’t remember clearly. I try to sit upright, but my head is held in place somehow. I investigate with my left hand, and find needles inserted under the skin of my scalp too. A strap across my forehead comes away when I release a clasp.

What should I do? I decide to shout.

“Camille! Camille?”

No answer. Is Camille her real name? I try the other names I know.

“David! Sarah!”

Even if those names no longer fit the others’ identities, at least they will remember them from inside the simulation.

“Daniel!” I hear a muffled voice from inside the glass case to my right. Is that Camille’s voice? It sounds familiar.

I start tugging the cables and tubes away. The pain of metal intrusions leaving my body feels good. I hesitate with the cables leading to my head, but then remove them too. My body feels lighter than air as I push myself forward and out into the room. I stumble into the center and collapse to the floor. I sit up, dazed, and crawl across to Camille’s case. I pull myself upright, and then pull the glass covering open.

And yes, it is Camille. Even wrapped in cables, tubes and bandages, and even with no hair, Camille is beautiful. Her eyes are still covered. Her hands remain restrained by the short tubes.

“I’m going to uncover your eyes,” I say.

“Please be careful,” she murmurs. I peel away the gauze from her eyes. She looks at me and blinks. First she smiles, a beautiful smile, and then her eyes drop to take in more than my face. “You’re bleeding all over!”

I look down at myself, and it is true. Where I’ve disconnected the cables and tubes, blood is flowing freely from my body.

“I feel fine,” I say, “I’m sure I’ll be fine.” I reach for Camille’s hand.

“No,” she says, “let’s wait for a technician.”

“I have to see to the others, but first let me say this,” I lean in and kiss her tenderly, “I never doubted you were really here with me.” I’ve left a smudge of blood across her lips. I wipe my own lips with the back of my arm, but only succeed in smearing more blood across my face.

“I love you, Daniel.” Her eyes show momentary panic. “Your name is Daniel?”

“Yes, Camille.” She sighs in relief.

I turn and open the next case to my left. It is Dr. Hooper. Sarah. She too has no hair, and her naked body looks a lot younger than I would have thought considering her appearance in the simulation. I uncover her eyes.

“Daniel?” She slurs, eyes slowly focusing.

“Yes,” I say. “Sarah?”


Finally I pull open the last glass case. David, who played the part of my father in the simulation, is not much older than I am. I pull the gauze from his eyes. At least his features recall those of my father’s, even if the age is off by about twenty years.

“David?” I ask.

“That’s my name,” he says. “Daniel? You look like shit.”

“Don’t move,” I say, “we’ll wait for a technician to check you over.”

I slump to the floor again and lay out flat on my back. I stare up at the white ceiling. I try to think. My thoughts are jumbled. Something is wrong. Why is there no technician coming to sort things out for us? I like the simulated waking from simulations better than the reality of waking from simulations.

“We need to do a test,” I say, and swallow some blood.

“We should just wait,” says Sarah. “The technicians will answer all our questions.”

“But we worked out how to do this already,” I say. “All we need to do is all try to remember something at the same time.”

“No,” says David, “we don’t need to worry about this. Don’t you remember, Daniel? Don’t you remember why we are here?”

“I don’t…” I think hard, trying to remember. Hazy images return. I’d applied for this experiment when I’d seen it in a brochure. My doctor had shown it to me. I’d be happy, he said. Forget the past, forget the present, live the future you’ve always wanted.

“Were you patients too?” I ask.

“I chose to be here,” says Sarah. “and I want to go back in.”

“But the thought experiment! Didn’t we solve it? We found out that we weren’t in the real world.”

“Of course,” she continues, “but everyone goes through that stage first. They told us that.”

And I remember. They did tell me that. A man had said “The first stage is for calibration. We’ll test you to the limit, and find out how you differentiate assumed reality from possible unreality. Once we know how to suppress this completely, we’ll start the simulation from scratch.”

It was true. The entire thing had been a thought experiment, but an experiment on how we thought. All the clues along the way, the fact that we all had been inside simulations inside the simulation…

“Will we remember this?” I ask.

“I don’t care,” says David. “As long as I’m together with Sarah again.”

I look up at Camille. She smiles down at me. “Daniel, you agreed to this. And they put us together.”

I love Camille. I know that. But who do I love? Is she still the same person out here as in the simulation? I know I’m not. I feel different. I feel more real. Is my love for Camille just part of the simulation? I’d never been so happy in my life. That much I remember. And if I returned to the simulation, it would be even more convincing than before, with none of the limits.

“Camille,” I say, “would you stay with me here? Stay outside the simulation?”

“I can’t,” she says, “I have nothing here.”

“You’ll have me.”

“And who are you? Are you a patient too?”

“I’m a real person,” I say, “a real person who really loves you.”

“Are you a rich rock star?” asks David. “Are you the playboy son of a national politician?”

I think about this. I can play the guitar, I know that. But I never wrote Paint a Picture, the song from the Super Bowl commercial. I had never been called up on stage during someone else’s show to play my own song. I had never crowd surfed on the hands of loving fans. Those were the edited memories of someone else. Grant Freeman. All the songs I remember as my own were Grant Freeman’s, in reality.

Maybe the memory of that night in the club had felt so real because it actually was real. Not real for me, but the recorded memories of Grant Freeman. If I returned to the simulation, I could live Freeman’s life again. Hadn’t Freeman eventually taken a trip into space? Could I live that life too? And if I returned, I’d be sure to stay with Camille. Beautiful Camille. Damaged Camille.

And how damaged was I? Was this therapy really the only way out? It was experimental, and free, and my doctor said it was what I should do. Set for life, he said, sponsored from here on out. I don’t remember all the details.

Suddenly blue light floods the room, pouring in through a door I hadn’t seen before. A figure totally covered in white, including the hands and head, looms above me.

“We told you to stay put until we came to check you out,” the figure says, a deep male voice. “We only brought you out to establish a new baseline.”

“I didn’t remember in time,” I say.

“Wait there one moment,” he says. He turns to Sarah, covers her eyes with the gauze once more, and closes the door.

“I’ll see you back inside,” says David, and the white figure repeats the procedure on his eyes and glass case.

“Camille,” I cry, “it doesn’t have to be this way!”

“Yes it does, Daniel.” She smiles at me as the figure covers her eyes, and suddenly I hate that smile. She doesn’t love me. She loves a fucked up mixture of my childish fantasies, mixed with the reality of Grant Freeman’s real past life. And what lays behind that smile? Is she really a genius scientist? One who is as smart as she is beautiful? The door of her case closes, now looking like a translucent lid of a high tech coffin.

The figure in white stands above me. “I’m not going back,” I say.

“You will,” he says.

“You can’t force me!”

“True, mate. I could just leave you there on the floor, bleeding to death.”

I move my arms, and feel blood pooling around me. “Take me to a doctor.”

“Daniel, I’m the only doctor here. There’s two ways we can do this, the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is you let me put you back in the case, I plug you in, and you live happily ever after.”

“But I’ll know everything is fake.”

“No you won’t. We know how to trick you for real this time. Not only will it feel real, it will feel more real than anything before, even in this, your real life. Remember how confused you’d sometimes get? How angry? How you wanted to die? All of that will be gone. You’ll be a whole person for the first time in your life.”

I don’t remember that, not exactly, but don’t want to admit it. Instead I say “But I won’t be alive.”

“You won’t know the difference.”

“I’d rather die a real man.”

“Sorry, Daniel, you’ve already signed the forms. We’re not allowed to let you die, and you ordered us to go against your own future orders.”

“Fuck you!” I scream, as I remember signing those forms.

“So that’s the easy way. Want to know the hard way?”

“Fuck you.” Just a moan this time.

“The hard way is that I don’t put you back in that box, and I let you see yourself as you really are.”

I lay on the floor, in a pool of my own blood. My life is very simple. There is no lower place to go. “I know how I really am.”

“You have no idea, Daniel. I suggest you go back into the simulation.”

“No wait,” I say, “tell me who I really am.”

“I can’t tell you,” says the figure, “but I can show you. The end result will be the same. Either way, you’re going back into the simulation. You’ll be with Camille, and fuck her brains out, and you’ll love it.”

That doesn’t sound like a doctor talking. “This isn’t reality, is it?”

“No, Daniel. And now we’re going to have to establish another baseline.”

“Show me reality.”

“Just like last time,” the voice said, then cut out.

Chapter 18

A formless black void, accompanied by… not silence. A low drone.

Awareness, but no knowledge. Memories, but memories only going back two weeks, and you know they aren’t real. Except for those, you only have memories of memories, all suspect. As yet, no sure identity. Stick with second person only.

Suddenly whatever blocks your ears are removed. Now you hear wheezing breath. Bubbling. Gurgling. The hum of fans. Footsteps, heavy boots on metal grating. Squeaking sounds from somewhere in another room, echoing into… into wherever you are now.

“Daniel.” It’s the voice of the figure in white. You remember that. The voice is talking to you, right? To Daniel. “I’m going to uncover your face, but I’m leaving the straps and the sleep paralysis in place. It’s too dangerous to let you move right away.”

Plugs pop out of your nostrils. You breath in cool air, and the acrid stink assaults your brain. Urine and shit, for the most part. And something fetid, something rotten. Something dead. It all smells very close.

A weight lifts off your eyes, and fresh air reaches the skin of your face. You try to open your eyes, but can’t.

“Don’t try to move,” says the voice, “I’ll tell you when you can speak.”

Fingertips pull your right eyelid up, and you see medical tape lower into place, holding your eye wide open, tape sticking eyelashes to your forehead.

“Other eye now.”

Soon you can see out of both eyes, but only an unfocused blurry mess.

“Try to look about now.”

You do, and shapes become defined. The ceiling is dark blue, painted metal, lit by a string of low energy bulbs suspended across your line on vision. You try to move your eyes, and make out shadows against the walls. It looks like computer or medical equipment, but it’s hard to identify any of it.

A shape leans into view. It’s a person. A man. He is gaunt, balding, maybe fifty years old.

“I’m going to release the paralysis now, and you’ll have full sensation too. You’re fully restrained, but don’t try to move.” He disappears in the direction of a machine.

Sudden pain. Searing pain. Your entire body burns, and you writhe madly. You hear screaming, and know right away that it is your own voice. You feel straps at every joint of every limb, pinning you to a cold slab of metal. You control the screams, temper them into mere gasps.

You start identifying individual sensations, extra specific discomforts layered on top of the underlying pain. Any motion of your feet stabs fire into the nerves there, so you hold still. Your calf muscles are knots of cramp, with no chance of relief. Your cock is catheterized, and strapped tightly against your leg. There is a hole in the surface below your back side, air circulating where it shouldn’t, and the hard metal edges are digging into your legs and lower back. You tense your muscles involuntarily, and feel unwiped faeces caked around your anus.

Your hands, like your feet, shoot pain directly into your brain at any motion. Your stomach is racked with hunger, a hunger so deep the emptiness is filling your entire torso. Your chest isn’t in pain, but there are three, maybe four, spots of dull aching, which also feel warm and slightly damp. There is a weight on the left side of your neck, and another dull ache there, as though something is gripping the skin. There is a similar sensation on your face, a dull ache on your left cheekbone, and something hovering just outside of your vision.

You have no idea how you got into this position.

“Daniel,” says the man, “can you speak?”

Your voice is a rasping cough, painful at every breath. “You sick fuck! Who put you up to this?”

“You don’t remember anything, do you? You never do. Not three weeks ago, and not two months before that.”

“Who the fuck are you? What’s happening to me?”

“My name is Kyle, but who I am isn’t important,” the voice says, “I’m just doing my job. The job you hired me to do. I come by every day or two, check you over, make sure everything is running smoothly, clean away your shit. Sometimes I have to bring you all the way out like this. Do you want to go back to the simulation yet? Just tell me, and you’ll be under in seconds.”

“I hired you?” That stirs vague memories, but memories you don’t feel comfortable accepting “Let me get up!”

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“That’ll take a doctor. Let me show you. I have a mirror here. Hold still.”

The man returns, and lifts a large round mirror above your head. He’s holding it so you can see nothing but a bulky machine above your head.

“Tip it down,” you say. He does so. And you see yourself. An emaciated face stares back at you in horror and disgust, cheeks drawn, lips thinned to nothing. Wires run into the skin around your eyes and ears, with more cables emerging from under your shaven head.

And there is something on your face, pinned to your left cheek, and draping across the stained metal table. It is like a dark brown fruit, and covered in fur. It has a tail, and is about the size of a rat. There is another shape just like it attached to your neck. Shaped just like a rat.

“Get that rat off my face!” you scream, thrashing at your restraints once more. “What the fuck!”

The mirror wobbles, and steadies with the reflected view of your chest. Four more rats are attached there too. Each one has wires running out of its neck and ears, with more thin wires running to the feet. You stop moving, and try to make out more details.

“Closer,” you say, and the mirror lowers. The rats’ eyes are all closed, and the front of their faces are missing. No, not missing, inserted into holes in your face and neck and chest.

You vomit. White bile erupts from your mouth and covers your chin and the rat on your face. You swallow some of the vomit again, not wanting to choke. The mirror disappears, a damp cloth wipes the vomit from your face, and the mirror reappears. It turns and shows your hands. Like the feet of the rats, wires run into the fingertips and wrists.

“No more,” you groan.

“I’m not blocking any memories, you know, but you have no idea what is going on, have you? My theory is post traumatic stress. Some kind of reflexive self-induced amnesia. But I’m not the expert. You know who is the expert?”


“You, Daniel. This entire setup, everything in these two shipping containers, was all your idea. You didn’t have the knowhow to do it all yourself, but years ago you had enough money to pay people to follow your plans. VR rigs have been done before, but nobody has ever been fooled. You’d already done basic research, but you wanted to take it the next step. It would be totally unethical, so the only person you could test on was yourself.

“And then it all went to shit outside. You know what’s been happening outside, right?”

You don’t think you remember. You just stare at the man above you.

“Europe disappeared off the map, and here in the U.S. we’re descending into our own version of hell. The fuckers in Washington are pulling all kinds of bullshit to keep us in line. We might as well be the United States of Eurasia. Fucking Orwell was an optimist.”

Washington? As in Washington DC? That must have been the capital city in the simulation.

“You’re not the only one to try to escape into VR, but you pushed further than others. Permanent sleep paralysis, a good step. Restricting memories? Nice one. A lot of people are doing that now, but when they go outside, the world is still fucked. Removing the reality checking? You almost had it down.

“But to escape completely, you had to have company. Computer AI isn’t even close to convincing, and nobody else cares about you and your fantasy world. Nobody cares about you in real life, so why would it be different in VR?”

The mirror appears above your face again, and a hand reaches into view to stroke the back of the rat.

“Camille. That’s her name, right? A computer can work out a set of memories, but you need a biological brain to bring them to life, to have real consciousness. And it has to be a mammal brain to experience emotions. You always fall in love with her, don’t you? Of course you do. Half of her personality is based on your own.”

The hand points to the other rats in turn, the one on your neck and the four on your chest.

“Meet David, your father in this last simulation. This is Sarah, David’s companion. You and the three rats make a happy foursome, usually. These last three rats fill in for other characters on the fly, and simulate memories if any of you need them at short notice, and if there’s nothing good in the files. They’re all gene tailored to you, you know. Embedded like this, they don’t need to eat or shit or even breathe, they just live right off your blood supply.”

The mirror disappears, and the face leans back in. Fingers rip the tape from your eyelids, and you close them immediately.

“Okay, time to go back under. Go cheat at reality. Make yourself a society you’re happy to live in. Make yourself a body and life you’re happy to live in. Change the rules as many times as you want.

“I’d tell you not to set up a simulation about being in simulations again, but you can’t help yourself, can you? It’s all you ever think about. If you obsessed about something other than thought experiments you’d stay convinced for way longer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who you’re going to be or not, it matters that you forget you ever didn’t know. Try to forget longer this time.”

“No,” you moan. “Get a doctor. Get me out of all this. Get that rat off my face!”

“Let me check your credit. Nope. You still have no money to pay a doctor. You barely have enough to pay me and the power company. You weren’t the only one who lost it all when Europe disappeared. Like I said, it’s all gone to shit out there.”

You try to speak again, but you’ve lost the ability. You can’t even open your eyes. You hear the sound of live rats from the other container.

“Next time, if you’re in the square room with Camille and the gang, remember to stay in the glass think tank, and just follow them back to the simulation.”

You lose all feeling of pain, and lay in cool bliss.

“Who am I kidding? You always end up back here.”

Fingers force plugs back into your nose, cutting off the smell of shit and sweating rats.

“See you again in two to eight weeks… probably.”

Plugs in your ears. Is this reality? Please let this be another thought experiment. Camille? Camille!


A formless black void, accompanied by silence. Attempt to move, and one feels nothing. It’s like a dream, though without the structure. The hand isn’t restricted, merely absent. There is awareness and knowledge, but no memory.

It begins, though one is unsure what just began.

Afterward (written January 2012)

The above story came almost fully formed in a dream. The opening thought experiment by John Rawls actually took place, and as it relies on the suppression of identity memories, I was scared that I didn’t know if I was who I thought I was. After a vague middle part of my dream, I “woke” and found out that all the characters in the dream had actually been created in the minds of rats attached to my face. This very disturbing image woke me up for real!

The dream stuck with me, so a few weeks later I put it down in writing as part of a NaNoWriMo project. I think it works well as a meandering study on paranoia and obsession, and it’s fun to write a story that is as much about science fiction as it is a science fiction story itself.

There are some questions left unanswered, I’m sure. Though this story can be read independently, it actually takes place in the same world as Minding Tomorrow and the accompanying novels. Daniel Westley is a character in Combat. The musician Grant Freeman, and how there is a record of his memories, is explained in Minding Tomorrow. The disappearance of Europe that causes the collapse of society referenced in the closing chapter is explained in the third novel in the Minding Tomorrow series, though unhelpfully I’ve yet to finish that project and release it.

Thanks for reading this far. If you’ve any feedback, please feel free to email me:

Luke Burrage