Countdown (September 2021)
By David P. Rogers
Let me tell you a story. Afterward, I will have a couple of questions for you. Not a quiz, exactly, but the answers will matter to you, all the same.
Feel free to take notes.
It was dark inside, so I held a foot against the door and fumbled for a light switch. No luck. Meanwhile, the door slipped past my foot and clicked shut, leaving me in complete darkness.
I felt again for a switch. Nothing but flat blank wall met my hand. A curious smell, like machine oil and ozone, drifted on the air. After my eyes adjusted to the darkness, a faint ambient light allowed me to see. I was not in the restroom, after all, but a hallway. I turned to go back, but the door would not budge. Ordinarily, the situation might have been a little scary, but the imminent need to empty my bladder made it frustrating, more than anything else.
If you can’t go back, try going forward, I advised myself.
The hallway turned left a dozen feet further on. A woman was standing under a flickering florescent light.
“Are you the one?” she asked.
“Er, sorry, one what? I guess I took a wrong turn,” I said.
“Are you him — the programmer?” she said, sounding a little frantic.
“The programmer!” she repeated. “The engineer!”
I must have stared as if I had no idea what she were talking about. Which I didn't.
“Or the number cruncher. Master coder, whatever you like to be called — can you fix the problem?”
“I'm just looking for the restroom,” I said.
“You don’t know where you are?”
“I guess not. I tried to go back, but the door locked behind me. Or got stuck. I don’t know. Good question — where am I, but more importantly, where’s the restroom? It’s a matter of life and death.”
She stared at me as if I had just made a very bad joke. Which I had. Worse than I could know, then. She gestured, absent-mindedly, at a door behind her. I went through to a small restroom.
When I came out, she was standing where I left her.
“If you were allowed to just wander in here, things are worse than I thought,” she said.
“About that — where is ‘here,’ and more importantly, how do I get out? You have the key to the door? Or know how to unstick it?”
“I've been waiting for days,” she said. “It's getting quite serious.”
“There's something wrong with the restrooms?”
“No, with the code, you id…” She paused mid-syllable. “You really have no idea what I am talking about, do you?”
“Like I said, I was just looking for the restrooms.”
“You shouldn't be here. It must be really bad, or you couldn't be here.”
“So you already said. Why don’t you calmly explain the problem? My name is Leif,” I said. “Now you know who I am and why I’m here. Why don’t you tell me about yourself?” I was starting to think she was mentally ill, maybe having some sort of an episode. “Tell me what ‘it’ is, for starters. I’ll try to help. Or find someone who can help. As soon as I find the way out.” She said nothing and did not move, so I added, “I guess I’ll go try the door again. Probably just stuck.”
When I turned to go back to where I came in, she laughed shortly, in a way that sounded a little unhinged. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
“Why not?” I stopped and looked back at her.
“It’s not stuck. The failsafe latch is keeping it closed, I’d say. If it does open, you’ve no idea what will be waiting for you.
“Actually, I do. Brookfield Mall. The footwear section, to be precise. I was looking for a new pair of comfortable walking shoes.
She stared, eyes wide and unblinking, then seemed to relax. “Jenna Miles. Engineering Assistant, First Class. Up for Full Engineer in six months, if I pass the test. I guess I could try repairing the code myself, but if it doesn’t work…”
“And where are we? Why are you here, Jenna Miles?”
“This is the Engineering Room for this Sector. Where else would an engineering assistant be?”
“So — the engineer — this coder you were expecting — what do you think happened to him?”
“How would I know? I’m the assistant. My engineer doesn’t tell me her whole schedule. All I know is, we ran into some fragmentations, ones she wasn’t sure how to fix. She went to check with her supervisor. The master coder. They were supposed to be back a week and a half ago, and the code is still decaying. It shouldn’t have taken more than an hour or two. She must have run into trouble. Big trouble, or she would have sent help, if she couldn’t get here herself. Something will have to be done soon, or…”
“Or the world will end. What you think is the world, anyway.”
Yep, she was definitely having an episode, I guessed. “Okay, Miss Miles. Or Jenna — can I call you Jenna?” She nodded, a slight bob of her head, so at least she was listening. “Here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to try the door again. If that doesn’t work, we’ll find the other way out. There has to be one. Fire codes and safety regulations and all. Then we’re going to call someone, find someone for you to talk to, okay? You have a family member you want to come and get you? Or a friend?”
She just stared at me a minute before saying, “Okay. The door. Try it. You go ahead and do that. Then we’ll talk.”
I looked around and did not see any weapons or sharp objects, just a couple of cardboard boxes and a mop bucket. I guessed it would be all right to leave her alone for a few minutes while I told someone there was a disturbed person in the back hallway.
It was not a sight or sound. Nothing you could call wind or hot or cold. No taste or smell. Not exactly. The only description that might help is in terms of contradictions. A silent shrieking. Still wind. Brilliant darkness. The purest moment of terror I have ever experienced. It reminded me of a poem by Emily Dickinson that begins, “It was not Death, for I stood up, and all the Dead lie down…”
I slammed the door and leaned against the wall. How long, I couldn’t say. Maybe I was the one now having an episode.
When I trusted my legs to hold me up without the wall’s help, I found Jenna where I had left her. She was sitting on one of the boxes, staring at the wall.
“You mind starting at the beginning, and explaining it all to me?” I asked. “Real slow, because I think I’m going to have questions. A lot of questions.”
“I’m going to get some coffee,” she said. “You want some?”
“There are levels,” Jenna said. “Or layers, or iterations. Some people don’t like to call them levels. Sounds too hierarchical. Like one level is better than another.” Her voice trailed off. Then, “If the problem is bleeding in form another layer…”
“What about you?”
“What about me, what?”
“You prefer to say levels or iterations?”
She shrugged. “I’m an engineer. Or plan to be. I prefer stuff that works. Changing a name doesn’t do much good if you don’t change anything else. So I keep my head down, do my job, and learn as much as I can. When I make full engineer, maybe I can make things a little more fair for everyone.”
“Engineers — they’re in charge of everything, then?”
She shook her head. “You kidding? Engineers are in charge of sectors. Master engineers outrank the full engineers. They get put in charge of whole levels, or iterations. So people say, anyway. Never met one, myself.”
“And the master engineers — who do they answer to?”
“The Council. Or that’s what I hear. You don’t ask many questions like that when you’re just an assistant who wants to move up.”
“And all of us regular people — we just wander around oblivious to what’s going on? How do we fit in?”
“You just answered your own question. You’re oblivious. Well, not you, of course. You now know things you were never supposed to know, because you were never supposed to be here. The code for those restrooms you were looking for must be shredded by now. Otherwise, you’d be just another happy little camper, on the way home to your simulated house, with your simulated shoes and an empty bladder.”
“What happens if the code is not fixed?”
“If it degrades completely, everything in this sector disappears. Including us, if we’re still here. But it won’t go that far. I’ll hit pause before that can happen.”
“We’re, what, not really here, then? We’re somewhere else? Maybe in a tank with wires and tubes hooked to our bodies, so the aliens or machines or whatever can harvest our energy, like in that movie?”
She almost laughed. “You still don’t get it. If you want analogies, you’re an avatar in somebody’s video game. Or a character in somebody’s novel. Without the game or book, you don’t exist. You do what you’re coded to do. Experience what your code allows.”
“I just do whatever the player or the writer wants, and that’s it? I have no free will? No real control over my own life?”
“The players, or writers, however you imagine them, are not sure what you will do. They may have some idea, but it’s not a certainty. Coders and engineers — that’s why they play, to see how it works out. To see what you will do. Or so it was explained to me in my Engineering Theory class, anyway.”
“It's still a mathematically determined process, though, right? We do what our code tells us to do…”
“Maybe so, but nobody knows what the outcome will be. Including you, a lot of the time. The code is too complex. There are too many variables. Why play the game if you already know the outcome? Anyway, would you rather just make random choices, no cause or reason? Because those are the options: code or chaos.”
“But you still haven’t explained what happens to our bodies if the — how do you say it — if the code degrades completely.”
“Good question. Simple answer. Which I did pretty much already give you. You are code. It’s what you’re made of. Without it, you don’t exist. Including your body.”
“And the coders, or the Master Engineers, the Council — how do they know they aren’t just code, too, in somebody else’s simulation?”
“Who says they do?”
“Surely there must be an ultimate coder, one who is not just part of another simulation. Otherwise, you have an infinite regression. Which makes no sense.”
“Maybe not to you. But you didn’t even know you were living in a simulation at all til just a few minutes ago.”
“So what about you?” Are you just code in somebody else’s simulation?”
“I assume so,” Jenna said. “What else would I be? But in the absence of empirical evidence, you may assume whatever you like, within the boundaries of logic. An infinite regression of code. Or a Super Coder who is herself uncoded, or maybe self-coded, and has always existed. Whom a lot of people would want to call God, but that idea would be just another kind of infinite regression, an infinite regression in time rather than an infinite regression of different coders. Take your pick.”
“If I am just part of an infinite regression of code and coders, that would be like being the dreamer who is the dream. I guess I can deal with that. Which do you prefer, the infinite regression of coders or one Super Coder who exists forever?”
“I’m too skeptical to claim to know,” Jenna said. “So I’m agnostic. A pragmatist. And an engineer’s assistant. If we keep the code running for our section, we did our job, and I can sleep at night.”
“And dream of electric coders?”
“Nothing. Dumb joke. Say, when the engineer gets back, do you think I could persuade her to code me as a billionaire? I’d be willing to offer a generous bribe, of course.”
“Another dumb joke?”
“Apparently so,” I said.
We waited in silence. How long, I couldn’t say. I was beginning to think time itself might be just another simulation, but I wasn’t about to ask Jenna if that were the case. I didn’t want to know the answer, which I probably wouldn’t understand anyway.
“I don’t think anyone’s coming,” Jenna said. “If they are, they’re not going to get here in time. I’m going to try to repair the code myself.”
“Why haven’t you tried before now, if you’ve been waiting over a week?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I could make it worse.”
She stepped behind a stack of boxes I hadn’t noticed before, in the dim light. Shortly there was a clunk, like the electricity being cut off to a large machine.
“What was that?” I said.
“I hit pause,” she said, stepping behind another stack of boxes and sitting down at a small table with what looked like an ordinary laptop computer.
Something still made no sense to me. I mean, aside from my whole life being a simulation.
“If you can’t fix the code, if your changes make the fragmentation worse, then you just hit pause and try again, right?” I asked. “As many times as it takes.”
“If it were that simple, don’t you think I would have tried before now?”
“What am I missing, then?”
“You can’t pause indefinitely. A simulation has to run or die. You pause too long, and the system times out.”
I didn’t ask why the system was made that way. Even if she knew, and if I understood the answer, there was nothing for me to do except let her do her job, without being distracted by my silly questions.
I watched her work, fingers flying over the keys, scrolling through what looked like random numbers and talking to herself, for a long time.
I must have dozed off.
“ . . . the best I can do.” Jenna was saying. “It will work, or it won’t.”
“So you’re going to unpause the system now? Restart the simulation? What then?”
“Like I said, “It will work, or not. As for unpausing, there’s no need. The system will restart itself, when the pause is about to time out — if it can — if my repairs are adequate.”
“And if they’re not?”
“We won’t be here to worry about it.”
“How long til pause times out, then?”
“About thirty seconds.”
“When the time runs out, thirty — twenty-five seconds from now — we find out if the repair worked?”
“Right. If we’re still here to find out anything. Or we disappear, too.”
“And if we’re still here, a minute from now?
“Everything will go back to normal. Probably.”
“And I can go back to my happy little simulated life?”
“If you’re lucky.”
So we waited, and watched the minutes and seconds count down.
Here, then, are the questions for you, dear reader, as promised: do you conclude that, because my story somehow found its way into your world, Jenna’s attempt to repair the code must have been successful? If not, how could I have survived to record this narrative? Or do you decide my story is only a harmless fantasy, and answers to such questions are unimportant?
If the choice makes you uncomfortable, all I can advise is, don’t wander down dark hallways in search of restrooms in strange places; or if you do, make sure the lights work before the door closes behind you.
The decision is up to you. Or whoever is writing the code for your simulation.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: David Rogers' (Facebook / Twitter / Website) creations have appeared in various places, including “Star*Line”, “Third Flatiron”, and “Daily Science Fiction”. His fascination with the origins of the Roland character, who was around for centuries before Stephen King sent his Roland on a quest, led to “Roots of the Dark Tower: The Long Quest” and “Many Lives of Roland”. Both David's collection of short fiction, “Emergency Exits”, and “Roots of the Dark Tower” are available from Amazon.