Jack Williamson’s world splintered into a cubist nightmare. He saw ultraviolet trees in the distance behind him; something vaguely spoonlike surrounded him on his left. When he saw his own orange-purple eyeballs in six places at once, he screamed. Unfortunately, his scream sounded to him like the entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir simultaneously singing Beethoven, Beatles, and that gawdawful hip-hop his son Ryan liked so much. Jack did the most sensible thing he could have possibly done: he fainted.Gradually, Jack came to realize that he had awoken. Afraid to open his eyes for fear of unleashing bedlam again, he thought very carefully. “Who slipped me what kind of hellacious drugs?” Jack wondered to himself. “Could that have been LSD?”
Jack mulled the possibility. It didn’t feel like the LSD his sophomore roommate had pressed upon him, but he’d heard that pharmocology had changed a lot in the past thirty years. Maybe this was what that Ecstasy drug was like. “Oh dear sweet Jesus, Ryan…” Jack involuntarily whispered, suddenly frightened for his son. If somebody had managed to slip something to Jack, how easy would it be to slip something to Ryan? If his fifty-two-year-old mind had such trouble with that kind of trip, even after having been prepared by a not-terribly-pleasant LSD trip, what on earth would this kind of drug do to his fragile son? Jack vowed that his only child would never leave the house without a chaperone again in his life.
Was it all better now? Was the trip over? Jack considered that question. He realized that the whisper that had leaked past his lips had sounded normal.
Jack swallowed, and listened carefully to the swallow. It sounded normal. He clicked his tongue. Normal. “Buh buh buh buh”, he said, suddenly feeling silly and hoping that nobody was listening to him. Jack decided that it sounded silly but normal.
Where was he? Was anybody watching? Jack listened. Mostly silence. No refrigerator running, no fans, no cars. Odd. Jack frowned. All he could hear was what sounded like the tick-tick-tick of a mechanical clock somewhere in the middle distance. “Strange”, he thought. “I don’t think I have a mechanical clock.”
Jack considered opening one eye. He really didn’t want a rerun of those bizarre visual effects, but he was starting to worry about where he was. Was he dead? Was this what the afterlife was like? He decided to risk opening one eye, but only for one blink. He’d bring his eyelid down just as soon as it went up.
Jack steeled himself for the blink. Eyelid up, down.
Jack processed the input his eye had given him: white. Hmmm. Not very useful for telling him where he was. Jack felt grateful, however, that there weren’t any ultraviolet trees anywhere to be seen in that blink. He decided to take another quick look, this time with both eyes.
Eyelids up. Down. White.
Well, that was sort of reassuring. Jack moved his left hand in front of his face and took another quick look.
Up. Down. Five fingers. A wedding ring. Wrinkles, some hair on the knuckles. Perhaps not very attractive, but very reassuring.
Jack looked around. He was lying on a hospital bed in the dead center of a relatively large, white room. Uh-oh. One door. A simple wooden table was about ten feet to his left, with nothing on it but a small clock, apparently the source of the ticking. It showed 10:32, but since there were no windows in the room, Jack couldn’t tell if it was AM or PM. A wooden chair sat next to the table.
So he had had a bad enough reaction that he’d been hospitalized. Where was Maggie? Jack scanned the room again to see if he’d overlooked a phone. No. Not unless it was behind the head of the bed. Jack twisted around in bed to look. No phone. Very odd.
Just then there was a knock on the door. Jack startled. While Jack was trying to process the information that someone was at the door, another knock came. Jack assembled his wits and yelled, “Come in!”
A bearded face with glasses poked into the room. “Hi. Can I come in?”
Jack muzzled the urge to say, “You’re already in,” and instead waved the beard in. The beard was followed by a burly body clad in bluejeans, a flannel shirt, and a white lab coat.
The doctor pulled the chair over and sat down. Because of the elevation from the hospital bed, Jack had to squirm a little to look down at the doctor. The doctor, seeing this, jumped up and sat on the seatback, leaning forward, to give Jack a better angle.
Jack thought this was the strangest doctor he’d ever seen.
“You are Jack Williamson of Noblesville, Indiana, right? Fifty-two years old, eighth grade social studies teacher?”
“Good. Wife Margaret, son Ryan?”
“Yes, where are they? Are they okay?”
“Yes, they are fine. But let’s get to them in a minute, okay?”
“Okay, so then… where am I? What happened?”
“Um. I assure you that you’re in a safe place.” The doctor paused and shifted his weight. “As for what happened, I think you basically had sensory overload.”
Jack nodded and waited for the doctor to tell him something that he didn’t know. “Did someone slip me some bad drugs?”
The doctor looked surprised. “No, no. You had more reality than you could to handle.”
“Uh-oh,” Jack thought to himself, “this guy sounds like a wacko.” Not wanting to reveal this insight, Jack instead articulated his disbelief by saying, “Huh?”
“I don’t exactly know how to break this to you gently, but Earth isn’t exactly reality.”
Jack looked at the doctor.
The doctor looked at Jack. “The reality that you knew is essentially one big, immersive computer game. I’m the game developer.” The doctor pointed at the name embroidered on his lab coat: God.
Jack looked at the doctor.
The doctor looked at Jack.
Jack looked at the doctor.
The doctor sighed. “Yeah, I didn’t think you’d believe me. Look, I’ll give you a demonstration. I’ll walk out that door and walk back in again as somebody else. What would you like me to look like?”
Jack thought for the briefest of moments of the person he most wanted to see right now. “Maggie. My wife.”
The doctor made a face. “I could do that, but it would take me a fair amount of time to get that really right, since you know her so intimately.” Apologetically, he asked, “Would it be okay to do some sort of archetype? Or some sort of historical or mythological figure instead? Then I wouldn’t need to tweak as many details. I’m kind of pressed for time.”
“Um, sure.” Jack’s eyes flicked to the doctor’s lab coat again. “How about the Western stereotype of God Himself? Big guy, white hair and beard, halo, etcetera.”
The doctor’s eyes lit up. “Sure! That sounds like fun.” He grinned and bounded out the door.
“Certifiable nutcase,” Jack thought to himself as the door closed. Immediately, the door opened again with the sound of a thunderclap. Jack jumped and pulled his covers up reflexively. On the other side of the door, Jack could see billowing white robes but no head. Frightened, Jack watched as the body folded over to let a white, bearded head duck underneath the door frame as God entered the room.
Unfortunately, God didn’t duck far enough, and smacked his halo squarely on the door frame, sending him sprawling backwards. “Crap!” God muttered in an impressive, rumbly bass voice as he picked himself up off the floor.
Jack stared with his mouth hanging open, then started to laugh. Realizing that laughing at God was probably a very bad idea, Jack clapped his hand over his mouth.
God looked crestfallen. “Shoot, I thought I was going to make such a good entrance.” God straightened up and promptly banged his halo on the ceiling. “Ow!”
“Maybe if you made yourself just a little smaller it would help,” Jack offered meekly. God nodded and shrank a few feet. “That’s better.”
God walked over to the chair and sat down again, bringing a small whirlwind with him that blew Jack’s hair into his eyes and flapped the sheets. Jack noticed that God’s hair was also flapping around in the wind.
“Um, God?” Jack yelled into the wind. “Could you turn the wind down?”
Abrubtly the wind stopped, and the doctor’s form reappeared in the chair. “Sorry about that. It was the easiest way to get the billowing effect on the robe. I guess I should have turned down the billowing a bit, but I was in a bit of a hurry. Besides, I thought it looked really awesome.”
“This is too weird,” Jack thought to himself.
“So where were we? Right, as I was saying, Earth is really just one big computer game. Sort of. It’s completely immersive, so people jack in and mostly forget the real world while they are playing. You follow?” The doctor — God — the doctor — looked expectantly at Jack.
Jack nodded, mute.
“But the simulation isn’t as complex as real life. Like, I only used four dimensions instead of six. On the other hand, it’s a lot bigger in some ways. There are only about thirty million people in reality, while there are five billion in the game.”
“Uh, I mean ‘on Earth’.”
“Are all those thirty million people playing the game?”
“No, though it is the most popular game of all time.” The doctor figure looked proud. “Right now there are one million, seven hundred and thirty-six thousand, four hundred and twenty-two people playing.”
Jack decided that buttering up God wouldn’t be a bad idea. “That’s a huge percentage of the total population. It must be a great game!”
The doctor beamed and exclaimed, “It is!” Turning modest, he said, “But I sometimes tell people that if I had toilet spiders and more lawyers, probably only six people would play.”
The doctor looked embarassed. “A nuisance in the real world. Sort of like mosquitos.” The doctor suddenly looked very flustered. “But that’s not really important.”
“So wait — if there are only a few million players at any one time, does each person play a bunch of characters on Earth?” Jack couldn’t believe that he was asking that question. If the doctor was crazy, Jack shouldn’t be buying in to his delusion. If, on the other hand, the doctor was God, it was probably blasphemous to interrupt.
The doctor didn’t seem to mind at all. “Good catch! No, each person plays one character, but there are a whole bunch of simulated characters that do a really good job, if I do say so myself.” The doctor looked proud. “Most of the really impressive historical figures you’ve heard of are players, but the sims are good enough that occasionally they’ll pull off some impressive stuff. Like Velcro. That was a sim that invented Velcro. I think Velcro is about to make me a whole pile of money in the real world.” The doctor smiled again, clearly pleased with how that was turning out. “And Joan of Arc was a sim. And Groucho Marx, and Harriet Tubman. Ten or twenty others that you’ve probably heard of from Western civilization, more from other traditions, even more who were exceptional but have been forgotten.”
“Are players immortal in the game?”
The doctor shook his head. “Not exactly. Generally, people play for one lifetime before jacking out, back to reality. If it’s a really short life, like infant mortality, then the game will automatically enroll them in another life. Not much sense in popping out a second after you popped in! But one Earth lifetime generally lasts about five to fifteen minutes in the real world, so that’s a nice little diversion.”
The doctor paused, allowing Jack to process this information.
Jack’s head spun. It was a truly incredible story. Unfortunately, it seemed to fit his recent experiences better than any theory that he could come up with. “So why did I have such trouble when I jacked out? And why did I jack out? I don’t remember dying.” Jack thought. “I think I was brushing my teeth.”
“You didn’t die.” The doctor grimaced. “Back in the early days, when I was creating the game, I sometimes needed to go into the game to debug. That meant that I needed to be able to jack out at will. So I have a special escape sequence that pops me out. I designed that sequence so that it’s nearly impossible to do accidentally, but I hadn’t figured on there being five billion people doing random things.”
The doctor watched Jack carefully as he said, “You tripped the escape sequence accidentally.”
Jack nodded slowly. “I see. And because I didn’t come out in the proper sequence, I got really confused.” He paused. “Sort of like waking up from a dream abruptly and taking a few minutes to figure out where you are.”
The doctor looked pained. “Not exactly.” He sighed, opened his mouth, then closed it again. He tried again. “The body you jacked out into wasn’t yours.”
Jack laughed. “Whoa! That would be embarassing! Okay, I get it. I can see how that could cause problems.”
The doctor looked a little bit surprised, but relieved, to hear Jack take it so well.
Jack reassured the doctor. “But no harm done, right? Just put me back in my body and whoever back in his, and it’ll all be fine.”
The doctor suddenly looked guarded again. Jack felt himself start to panic. “Right?”
The doctor shook his head slowly. “No, I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You don’t have a body to jack out to.”
“What?” yelled Jack. “My body died while I was off in somebody else’s?”
“No, Jack,” said the doctor quietly. “You never had one.”
Jack stared at the doctor.
“Jack,” said the doctor gently, “You aren’t a player. You’re a sim.”
Jack’s jaw went slack.
“Your escape sequence inserted your persona into someone else’s body, and I do not have the clear legal right to remove you from her body without your consent. Meanwhile, she is in the machine, and although I slowed the game way down, eventually she’s going to die and need a body to jack out to. That means that she and all the other 1.7 million players in the machine are spending longer than they thought they would, and pretty soon they’ll be late for dinner and get really ticked off about it. So not to rush you or anything, but we need to resolve this fast. I need your consent to pull you out of the body you’re occupying and put you back in the game.”
“But where am I now? Aren’t I in the game now? This looks like three dimensions to me, not six.”
“I pulled the code for your body out of a backup from last year and created this room special for you so that you could focus on this conversation instead of trying to cope with six dimensions. However, you’re still connected to the player’s body in a way that would take a long time to explain.”
Jack whipped his left forearm around. Sure enough, the mole his doctor had removed in July was still there.
He opened his mouth, then closed it. Apparently the doctor was telling the truth.
Jack thought. What did it all mean for him? If he stayed in “the real world”, he’d never see Maggie and Ryan again. On the other other hand, could he love them knowing that they were sims? Could he respect himself, knowing that he was a sim? Knowing that he lived in a pale shadow of the real world?
Would he be able to jack out again if he wanted to? Jack tried to remember exactly what he had been doing right before the world exploded. Something about brushing his teeth, but apparently he must have done some other strange thing like thinking of wombats eating rutabagas while tensing his left toe. Whatever it was, the disorientation had swept the memory clear out of his mind.
If he went back to Earth, how safe would he be? What would prevent God from killing him off so that he didn’t accidentally jack out again? Did sims have any rights at all?
On the other hand, if he refused consent, would that make him a murderer? Would he be legally allowed to take ownership of the new body? Could they grow him a new body? Could they grow the player a new body?
Could he get used to the extra dimensions? Would the player’s body “know” how to handle six dimensions, or would he go crazy trying to process all those dimensions? Would he be at a permanent disadvantage in the six-dimensional world? Would he be a retard? A freak?
The doctor figure — God — just sat and waited, looking more and more nervous as the minutes rolled by.
As questions tumbled ever faster through his head, Jack realized that he was at an enormous disadvantage. All he knew about the real world was that it had six dimensions and ultraviolet trees. He didn’t know how much negotiating leverage he had or even a clear idea of what he could or should bargain for.
Jack finally reached clarity, and smiled. He realized that the doctor had inadvertently given him a clue to great power, a piece of information that gave him the means to enormous knowledge, wealth, power, and perhaps even a certain form of immortality. Jack turned back to the doctor and uttered the magic phrase: “I want to speak to a lawyer.” And smiled.