~Chapter 3~
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I let out a tired groan as I opened my bag and started rummaging through its pockets. I was hungry, parched and the early afternoon twilight made finding my keys harder than strictly necessary. If that didn’t make it abundantly clear, taking off like that turned out to be one of my less brilliant ideas.

For a start it took me a good five minutes after separating from Joshua to realize I had no idea where I was. Since going back to him and asking for directions would have been awkward (not to mention there was no guarantee he was still standing around in that alley for me to find him) I decided to ask some passersby. That was another less than stellar idea, as most of them just locked up with thousand yard stares the moment I tried to get any information out of them. If I didn’t stumble upon a public park that had some information boards with a map I probably would have still been wandering the streets.

I finally found the key and unlocked the door with a satisfying click. I threw it wide open and rushed inside without even bothering to take off my outdoors shoes. The living room was in the exact same condition as I left it, down to the still lightly damp towel on the arm of the sofa. My alleged parents obviously hadn’t come home yet. If they existed in the first place, that is. I only spared a glance at the clock on the wall, which told me that it was a little after five PM, and then I immediately headed towards the kitchen.

After concluding my raid of the fridge I returned to the living room with the spoils; a carton of milk in one hand and a hastily thrown together ham sandwich in the other. I dropped my posterior onto the sofa and sighed in relief. It felt good to sit down at last. I took one last gulp from the milk-box before I placed it onto the table, after which I stretched my limbs. My legs all but sighed with respite. After limbering back up a little, I laid back and rested the rear of my head on the back-rest of the sofa, staring at the ceiling in a moment of stupor. It felt good to just relax and not think about anything in particular.

I only allowed myself the luxury for a couple of minutes though. Unfortunately, I had things to think about. Weird, confusing and sometimes downright terrifying things. In a twisted sense it was lucky that I got lost in town, as wandering around allowed the revelation to sink in a little and blunted the worst of the existential crisis, though I would be lying if I said it wasn’t still lurking somewhere deep in my gut. I mean, it is not every day someone realizes he wasn’t real…

Okay, to be fair, it was also possible that it was the world that wasn’t real. Not that said possibility made things any less complicated or scary. I sat straight and rubbed my forehead. I was getting ahead of myself, I realized. I should start from the beginning and think things through properly before jumping to conclusions.

I stood up, grabbed hold of my discarded bag and fished out a pen from a side pocket before grabbing one of the spiral notebooks. It didn’t matter which one, they were all empty. I cleaned up the table, piling the documents I collected in the morning into a neat stack in one corner before I sat down again with my writing implements in front of me. It was fairly clear what I had to do.

First I needed to collect data. I inadvertently did a lot of that today, but tomorrow I would have to make a conscious effort and continue with this specific goal in mind. Then I had to collect and organize the information, so that I could either prove or disprove my hypotheses. Finally, using the data and my research assembled in the first two points, I had to figure out just what the bloody hell was going on. Easy-peasy. But then I was getting ahead of myself again. Let’s see my current hypothesis at first.

I hit up the notebook and wrote ‘This isn’t reality and/or I am part of some sort of constructed world’ onto the top of the page. I paused and rubbed my cheek. Yeah, thinking about it and actually putting it to paper was very different, but I wasn’t considering something this crazy lightly.

Under the title I wrote up a new heading: ‘Observations’.

First off, my own situation. As far as I could tell, I was a fairly tall but otherwise average male Caucasian high-schooler living in a large house without any parental oversight. I was also a transfer student in a Japanese style school, I had a friend called Joshua and I apparently knew a girl called Angeline, who was his childhood friend. I was probably on friendly terms with her too.

I also had amnesia, which was another tell-tale-sign. I think it’s supposed to make me a… what was the word… audience-surrogate, I think? I decided I should look the term up later. I was fairly sure there was a site out there that cataloged these kinds of things…

But back to the topic at hand: These tidbits more-or-less designated me as a protagonist. I was only missing three things: an annoying but sweet little sister, a female childhood friend and a male idiot friend. I paused and, though he didn’t really seem to fit the bill at the moment, I wrote ‘Joshua’ over the idiot friend entry in my book. I frowned at my handiwork and, after some hesitation, I added a large question mark after his name.

Moving on. I wrote up ‘Environment’ onto my list and paused again. I had already noted how everything was clean, but on second thought I had to change my description to ‘new’. The longer I watched my surroundings the more it felt like I was on a set of a sitcom or soap-opera that was only supposed to mimic reality under stage lighting.

Speaking of genres made me think of another thing and I quickly wrote up ‘Setting’ to the top of the next page. I looked at the word and it somehow made me feel silly. Normally people didn’t consider their circumstances part of a ‘setting’. On the other hand, these were anything but normal circumstances.

Anyways, as far as I could tell it was a Japanese style high-school background with some anachronisms thrown into the mix. That would imply either comedy or romance. Well, the appearance of the delinquents certainly placed the ball in the court of the former, though taken that I largely took myself out of the proceedings of the day it was not impossible that I missed some sort of designated romantic encounter. With my luck it would have probably been a tsundere girl colliding with me on the street with a half-eaten slice of toast still hanging from her mouth, or something similarly stereotypical.

I paused to take a sip from the milk box and found myself frowning by the time I put it back down. What did I just write here? I scanned the page with my eyes and found the word close to the bottom. ‘Tsundere’. The hell is that?

Somehow I had a hazy mental image of what the word should mean in the form of a short, blonde ponytailed girl yelling at someone while blushing. Was that the name of someone? No, I think it was something along the lines of a… personality? An archetype? Concluding that I should look the word up later I promptly underlined it. I frowned at the page one last time and let out a soft groan.

“So now I am using words I don’t even know the meaning of. I’m not even surprised anymore.”

This incident however gave me a new idea and I wrote up my next heading to the top of the following page: ‘Anomalies’. I cracked my fingers. Now this was a meaty subject if I have ever seen one.

First on the list was my amnesia. Thankfully my memories didn’t seem to be completely wiped clean, at least if my hazy image of that Angeline girl was any indication, but that was good news in the same way as telling a quadriplegic that they should be happy they still had their head. But then again, it was a start. If nothing else, it showed that some memories could still lurk in my head somewhere… though as I thought about it, maybe the ‘using words I don’t know’ anomaly that made me start this segment was actually related to my amnesia as well. It was possible that I actually knew these words, but not anymore. I should look into this later, along with the symptoms of retrograde amnesia. It is probably all related.

I paused and nodded to myself. Right, I really should look into those terms too; they might jog my memory. What were they again…? Audience-surrogate, tsundere… Then there was that ‘refuge in audacity’ thing with Josh; that must have come from somewhere… Oh, and there was that thing that had to do with goldfish, though I can’t remember the exact line. It still felt like it made sense in context, but I couldn’t remember the exact term, because why would anything be easy today?

Leaving that annoyance aside, here’s another one: the issue of those sudden headaches and the strange urge I felt when they struck. They were gone for the moment, but I could never know when they would return. It would be best to figure out what they were about, but at the very least I had to be on guard against them in the future.

Next I wrote up my arrival to the roof and the short blackout preceding it. According to Joshua the door leading to the roof should have been locked until noon… so how did I get up there?

“I guess I will investigate the stairs and the door to the roof tomorrow. There must be some traces there.”

I scratched my head. This was probably the question I had the least clues about, so for now I underlined the question mark and moved on.

Then there were the people. This was arguably the biggest and most glaring anomaly of them all, though the general spotlessness of the world gave it a run for its money. The lack of variety at school, the lack of individual personalities, the glassy stares whenever they encountered something unexpected and just the general haziness of their existence all pointed at the same direction: there was something seriously wrong with everyone. Well, almost everyone. The only people who actually felt real were Joshua and, to a degree, the three delinquents we met. In retrospect, Josh made sense if we went with the ‘I’m the protagonist’ idea. He was supposed to be my friend and all, but the delinquents didn’t really strike me as similarly important. Or maybe that’s what made them even more important? For my research purposes, I mean.

I sighed and began munching on my sandwich while I considered my points once again. I underlined a few important looking bits, fixed a few typos, decided to refer to any seemingly non-important people as ‘placeholders’ for the sake simplicity, and by the time I finished eating I was reasonably sure I got the most important observations down. Now came the hard part; I had to figure out how everything fit together.

I sat straight and stared at the open notebook, scanning the lines one last time. My first idea was a fairly tame one: This was all a dream. I could be sleeping in my bed right now and lucid dreaming this entire scenario. It would explain most, if not all, of the anomalies, except for a single serious flaw: dreams don’t tend to stay so consistent for so long. Not to mention I have been awake, unconscious, in pain, hungry, thirsty and a hundred other things since I woke up this morning, all of which I could remember clearly. That’s just not how dreams worked. They are more… volatile and, dare I redundantly say, dreamlike? Also, if I am aware this is a dream, why didn’t I wake up the moment I started writing this sentence? No matter how I looked at it, these facts pointed at me being in something much more stable than your average lucid dream.

The second possibility flowed from the first quite naturally: I could be in a coma, walking the thin line between life and death in some hospital ward at this very moment. It could very well have been caused by head trauma, an adequate explanation for how my memories got screwed over, and it would also explain the stability of the dream… though not its consistency. No, the real problem wasn’t even the consistency of the dream itself but its anomalies. When one’s dreaming, the part of the brain that governs reality-testing is offline. That’s why you can have a dream where you are riding tiny pink elephants on the wing of a jet-plane while playing the balalaika and never even question the weirdness of it all. Oh, speaking of weirdness…

“The heck is a ‘balalaika’? I think it’s a musical instrument or something, but…”

I groaned and leafed back a few pages to write ‘balalaika’ under the ‘words to look up later’ heading. Anyways, back to the original topic: one’s brain has two settings; reality-testing either works or it doesn’t. That means that if this was a dream entirely in my head, I should not have been able to notice any anomalies, since my reality-testing suite would have been offline and I would have accepted everything at face value. It obviously wasn’t the case, as the slowly filling notebook could testify.

While this was not enough to completely rule out the possibility of a dream, either coma-induced or garden-variety, I personally considered them unlikely.

Putting those aside, the next option was the one that first reared its head when I talked to Josh: I was in a virtual reality. A game, maybe even an MMO. There were two lines of evidence pointing this way.

First off, the people. If this was a dream, there was no reason why they should be so wispy and acting so weird, but if I presume that they are literal placeholders, NPCs who were only supposed to fill the background, their behavior suddenly started to make sense. Their AIs were probably not programmed to deal with unexpected stimuli. It’s like how in certain games you could throw a bucket on a shopkeeper’s head and steal all their valuables because technically they couldn’t see you doing so. (Note to self: Try the bucket thing if the opportunity presents itself. It sounds hilarious.)

Back on the track: this hypothesis also provided an elegant explanation for the ever-present cleanness of the world. If I were to presume that this is a simulation, it would make sense that it didn’t simulate ‘everything’, especially if it was a game world as I suspected. You were not supposed to find dusty windowsills or dirty floors in a game environment. Creating those consumed system resources that could be used elsewhere, so unless the area specifically needed those things, like a dusty cellar or a garbage-filled alleyway, the world would generally appear clean.

I paused and tapped my pen against the notepad. After some thinking I stood up and returned to the kitchen. I looked through the cupboards and quickly found what I was looking for; a couple of small packages of flour tucked away in a corner. I opened one of them and carefully stuck my finger inside, stirring up the powder. It looked and felt just as it should.

I decided to go the whole distance, so reached in deeper and took a pinch of flour out and then let it slowly trickle out of my grasp and onto the kitchen table. I watched it for a while before I blew on the particles. The flour acted exactly how it was supposed to, billowing around the table in a fine white mist. It looked normal enough, which got me thinking.

Let’s presume for a moment that this was indeed a simulation and not just a hypothesis. Simulating an environment to this level of detail required a lot of processing power; so much processing power that I couldn’t even fathom what kind of computer could manage it. For the moment, let’s also grant the existence of such a machine, one that could crunch all the numbers necessary. However, a good simulation didn’t really need to simulate everything to be convincing.

For example, take a car. If one wanted to create a simulation of a car in, say, a racing game, one didn’t actually need to simulate every single aspect of the machine. In reality the car’s movements were the result of a thousand forces and counter-forces working at the same time, transmitted from the explosion of the fuel in the engine to the traction between the tires and the asphalt. A perfect simulation of the car required to take all of these individual forces into account, how they affected the thousands of individual moving parts and how those in return affected the movement of the whole. It is an enormous amount of data that has to be calculated.

But what if one wasn’t looking for a perfect simulation? What if one only cared about the final product, the movement of the car being authentic, and didn’t care about the intermediate steps? If one was to abstract all the tiny forces and only focus on the important ones, one could easily reduce the number of variables required to simulate a car to manageable levels. The energy of the explosions in the engine chambers transmitted through the pistons, the friction between the moving parts, the time needed to accelerate certain parts or even the whole car; all these things could be boiled down to numbers… at which point you don’t need to simulate all the intricacies of the engine block anymore. In fact, one could simply remove it altogether, like taking out a large chunk of an algebraic equation to replace it with that part’s solution before moving on to solve the rest.

I watched in silence as the fine white powder stopped swirling in the air in front of me and slowly settled onto the table. I sighed before I made a mental note to clean up the mess later and returned to the living room. My little experiment only raised more questions. If I were to presume that this was indeed a virtual world that lacked dirt in order to conserve processing power, then how come it was perfectly capable of simulating dust particles like that?

Maybe it was a question of time? Maybe it was a new simulation and there was simply no time for dust and dirt to pile up yet. Or maybe it was a question of scale? As in, it would be able to deal with a handful of flour particles from time to time but not an entire city’s worth of dust. Hell, as far as I knew it might have only simulated the flour because I was looking. In fact, that last one sounded decidedly possible. Hell, maybe the only part of the entire world that was simulated at any given time was the area I was actually observing at the moment. The question is; how do I test something like that?

I rubbed my face in frustration and slumped back on the sofa. I didn’t have any illusions of solving my situation from my armchair just by writing up my guesses in a more organized manner, but the longer I was at it, the more daunting this whole mess felt like. In the end, I grit my teeth and grabbed hold of my pen again. I had to press on.

So, where was I? Right, the simulation. So, what are its limits? I mean, if this really is a simulation, that is… Anyways, it appeared it could emulate dust and fine particles. To see if it did so for smaller particles, like actual molecules and atoms, I would need professional equipment I didn’t have access to. Now, what could I test? Maybe cells? Those would be in line with my car analogy; why would a simulation bother to build a human up from the cellular level when abstracting the body and its functions would work just as well?

Thinking of humans reminded me of something else: if this simulation was sophisticated enough to emulate dust-physics, why would it have placeholders that are barely more than automatons? I paused and underlined the question again. I had no answer at the moment, and my speculations about processing power and simulation resolution already sounded too specific for something I had no bloody idea about. I decided I should leave this line of inquiry for later, when I had more data to work with.

Now it was time to get back to the original question: how did I fit into this simulation hypothesis? In case of this being a dream my role was obvious. Someone had to dream the dream after all. In the case of the simulation, there were two very distinct possibilities: I was either from the ‘outside’, like a player trapped inside a virtual reality MMO, or I was from the inside to begin with, like an NPC that just gained sentience.

Both possibilities had data to bolster them. If I was a ‘player’, so to speak, it would explain my in-universe situation. The protagonist living alone in a house without parental oversight was in a way a staple of most Japanese school life fiction, with which the setting showed the most similarity. My lack of memories could have come from a number of sources, such as a failed disconnection or my real body suffering some sort of injury while inside.

The NPC variant on the other hand had a number of lines of evidence as well. My lack of memories could come from the simple fact that I had none to begin with, my headache could have been the system freaking out when I went against my programming and many of my anomalies could have been because I was a glitch in the system.

Both possibilities raised a number of intriguing questions as well. Was this an independent simulation, like a scientific experiment, or was it a constructed one for outside observers?  Were there any other ‘players’ in the system, and if there were, who were they? Alternatively, if there were none, why did I gain sentience and how does that affect me and the world? Or maybe this was all just a dream of a narcoleptic elder god and none of it makes sense at all. I dream of being a squid who dreams of being me or something along those lines… I was never good with my zen metaphors.

I paused yet again and looked at the line I just wrote. My letters were all crooked and weird. It took me a moment to realize the reason: my hand was shaking. Not only that, my entire body was tense like I was an over-strung bow ready to snap at any moment. I put down the pen and buried my head in my hands.

“I suppose you can only keep existential dread at bay for so long, huh?”

I reached for the milk box to cool my head, but the liquid inside was already at room temperature. I drank it all the same, but I still wanted something cold to fix my nerves. Maybe there was some booze in the fridge and…

“No, that won’t do.”

I stood with weary steps and threw the empty box into the trashcan in the kitchen’s corner. I wanted to douse my anxiety, not pour more fuel onto it via alcohol. Not to mention I needed to think clearly. Also, I was a minor, though it wasn’t like anyone cared. At last I shrugged my shoulders and walked back to the table. Well, if I was already standing I decided I might as well do something else. I just need something to take my mind off the immediate horror of the situation for a while. I wasn’t burying my head in the sand, I was just… re-prioritizing. Yes.

I snatched up my notes and returned to my room. Just as I remembered, there was a PC in the corner, a sleek and powerful beast of a machine… by nineties standards. After some fiddling and assorted headaches (bad news: my PC had a password on it; good news: it was ‘12345’, so I got in on the second try) I managed to get the internet working, though it was surprisingly sluggish. Note to self: put that money on my account to good use and buy a better rig. Or better yet, a laptop for mobility.

Nevertheless, I put my notebook in my lap and clicked in the search bar. I wrote in ‘amnesia’ and was about to click OK but I stopped and glanced back at the notes. I hesitated for a moment, then hit backspace instead and wiggled my fingers.

“I’ll get to that, but first… let’s find out what a heck is a ‘tsundere’.”