[Book 1] [1. The world is not real?]
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As I sliced through the throat of the final boss, a loud squishing sound resounded over the hall. With a mechanic pull of my sword, its yellow blood gushed out, and a metallic fragrance lingered in the air. Thanks to my finishing move, I defeated the Boss; thus I had completed the quest of the World’s End, my last assignment.

[QA #954137 has been completed, ending session]

The system cut off my connection to the test environment as soon as I closed the notice. I crawled out of the VR capsule with a grunt and my mind was still hazy, when my boss spoke behind me, “John, thank you for all your hard work. It saddens me that even your turn came up.”

Sure, as you would care, boss. I thought to myself and smirked. To show him how much I cared about his words, I stayed silent and diverted my stare at the huge hall full of old capsules. Only a few lights were up, illuminating a path to the exit. This place used to be packed with people, but now only me, Lucy, and our annoying boss remained.

The shiny days of the bustling department seemed now like a lie. Still silent, I nodded towards the dim lights of the last remaining capsule. Good luck, Lucy, my friend.

“Don’t worry, I am sure you can find another job,” he assured me, with a fake half-smile.

“Leave that fake tone to yourself,” I spoke in a rough voice, without sparing him even a glance. At least one thing was positive about getting fired - no more of him in my life. “Tell Lucy my regards, boss.”

Without looking back, I left the building at a steady pace, my hands curled into balls. I became a lone wolf. As I walked on the streets, I met crowds of robots going their ways, but only a few actual people. If you didn’t play the game, or you were going outside, players called you “a wolf”, as in a lone wolf. Normal people were communicating only in the game. The robots that humankind created were doing their jobs instead.

As on any other day, I went to a small bar smashed between two enormous apartment complexes teeming with luxury. They towered all around, with no consideration that the bar lacked natural light. The developer even called it a good thing - no scorching sun reaching the windows.

I smirked at the memory of relocating his German car and walked inside. It was like being transported back to the good ol’ times. I nodded to the old man behind the bar and sat on my favorite stool. Hello sadness. Patrick prepared a whiskey for me, as he always did. Whisky to push out the void.

Although he was way over 80 years old, his hands were still steady. Yay for the medical progress. When he saw my glum face, he raised his eyebrow and asked, “Is it over? Are you fired?”

With a pained smile, I raised my head and only stared at his hands. Even me. After he reminded me of his question with a slight cough, I finally answered, “Yes, I am a wolf now.”

“Even the last tester of the game?” he said and quickly smashed another drink on the bar. Without waiting for his response, I drank at least half of the glass and gazed out of the small window. Darkness grinned at me there; the apartment was a few inches away.

I glanced at an old photo hanging proudly on the wall and drank the rest of the whiskey. “Your bar is still the same as it was a hundred years ago.” In the picture was his smiling Irish grandfather, who opened the bar in the 1950s, and some old famous actor signed it, but by now the ink almost faded.

Patrick then continued, “The machines replaced everyone! The end of the world as I know it is near. Never would I think I’ll ever say such a thing. I am not getting any younger. My sons and grandsons are playing the game and all my patrons are resting in the graveyard. You and the other folks are the only ones who keep me going. If you drop off, I’ll just cave in and sell it to that brat.”

 

I drank at least ten drinks and we talked about how everything was great before and the world was heading to our doom. After a while, I was a little tipsy and started blabbing, “Everything changed twenty years ago, when my former company launched the learning AI. At the start, we thought it was for the better. You know, the simple manual labor…”

“I told you that back then, lad. The Terminator was right; we all are going to get annihilated.”

“Was he? I don’t think so!” I yelled out and my conscience screamed that I upset people around me, so I glanced at the other stools. There was nobody to be disturbed. Nobody in the entire bar. Terrific. “You can see the AIs everywhere, but did we fight? Had we lost a war? We abandoned this world and moved to the new one, to the game and communism won, because of that stupid universal income from an AI tax. It wasn’t because it was better, but because it was the only option. I hate it.”

Patrick nodded. “Lad, you are right, the commies came through youth. I saw it with my own eyes and now I can’t even order a whiskey without the touch of a robot. Yes, robots makin’ whisky!” The old man was complaining again, per usual. Our conversation was stale after the years.

“Patrick, listen, if I could get into the game, I would go there too.”

Yet I couldn’t.

I was telling my sob story about being a tester, barred from the game, to everyone willing to listen. “Made by Nathan. The savior of humanity. He held hands with governments and forced people to play the game. Except me; I wanted to, but I couldn’t.”

“Savior my ass, lad. When I was young, we had to work hard for the money, not to play a video game and get checks from the government!”

“Hey, that was my job, old man! The only job I could do. I was QA testing the new expansions for the game.” Patrick visibly shook, probably wanted to stop my sobbing story, but held back. Today. Yesterday he almost threw me away when I was complaining. With the same line, for a hundredth time.

“Lad, nothing beats the real deal. You know the best night of my life? When I was with my wife at the beach in Costa Rica. You can’t beat that in a simulation!”

I sneered. He clearly hadn’t played the game, because it had a thousand times better locations than some random coast. “Maybe, but as things stand, I don’t have a job anymore. There wasn’t a bug for over five years, so they kicked me, the best exploiter.”

I took a sip and contemplated about it. The people were living in a game, but voluntarily. Maybe I should watch the Matrix again? After all these years, I was turning into the man shouting at a cloud. “What can I do now? Live a wolf's life? There is no job for someone like me! I was too dumb for college; I could only play video games. Commie tax is just enough for… more whiskey, please.”

After a while, a weird fifteen years old punk, in a brown coat, appeared in front of me. Right, that was my cue. I had enough. I looked for the old man to pay the bill, but he was nowhere to be seen. Had he gone to the warehouse?

“Hi there, John!”

What the heck? I glared at the punk, a little unsteady on my feet. “Since when my delusions can talk?”

“Don’t worry about that! I have no time, look!” He held out hands with palms up. On the left hand, he had a red pill. On the right one, he had a greenish pill.

“You have a choice. If you take the red pill, I will take your memory as far into the past as I can! You know, my father is a scientist, and he’s running a lot of sims, so I wanted to have fun! MATRIX MAN!”

“Woah, slow down! What the hell are you talking about? How many drinks have I had?”

“Man, that’s easy! I came from future and father is running 135-years sims to determine why the game won. We are in a sim there as well! We don’t know how deep it is! Great, right?”

“Ugh, I think I’ll throw up...”

“Then take the blue pill and I will find another drunkard!”

“Blue? Punk, this is green. Even if you are only an illusion, at least learn proper colors.”

“Oh man, I wanted to be like THE Morpheus. The Matrix is the best historical movie! That’s fine, take the red one. How can anything be worse than what happened to you? Father will end your sim soon! Don’t worry, I will port you to one that will run till our present and beyond!”

Something was building inside me, and the world spun. “Slow down, punk! My head hurts like hell and you are making me want to puke.”

“I don’t have time! My old man will end this anytime now. You need to take it fast!”

While bitting lip to prevent from throwing up, I questioned the imaginary kid, “If we are all simulated, what’s the point of living?”

“Hey man, that’s an old, deep question. I can’t help with that, see I live because I want to. If you are interested, you can find the peeps who started doing sims. They call themselves the ring of smiling people.”

I glanced at him and closed my eyes before I threw up at him. “You know what? Gimme.” I said and took the red pill, swallowing it. It wasn’t an aspirin, because nothing happened, and my head still hurt like hell. “Hey, punk! What did you do?”

“Geez! I need to reload your sim, man! The one I will port you into is twenty years in the past, just before the game!” With that, he disappeared. What a weird fella. Now, where was some bucket where I could throw up to?

In that instant, a tranquil blackness enveloped me. My head and body didn’t scream “tipsy” anymore. What? After opening my eyes, a room welcomed me. My room. What the hell? Why was I staring at a dirty ceiling at home? Did I pass out and someone carried me back? Turning around in the bed, I checked my phone. The date wasn’t right.

Oh boy, that’s scary. No, no, no! Did that mean that everything the punk said was true? Was I in a simulation that runs in a simulation? Why was I twenty years back? Could I freak out now? What’s going on? I’ve freaking time-traveled!

***

In a spacious meeting room, six men sat around a round table. Nathan, a tall man in his late twenties, with a long, pointy chin and silly looking nose, stood up.

“Ladies and gentlemen, esteemed members of our organization, it is my pleasure to welcome you to our highly anticipated twentieth rebirth. As previously deliberated, we have decided to commence the proceedings just one day before the initiation of the game. Regrettably, Jeffrey, I must inform you that we cannot accommodate your request to start earlier, as it would compromise the integrity of the fate. Moreover, during our routine checks, we came across an anomaly that requires our immediate attention,” he said, and was studying their faces with a stern look, almost as if he was searching for a culprit.

“Colleagues, it has come to our notice that during our transportation, an individual was inadvertently brought back with us. I strongly recommend that we launch a thorough investigation into this incident and take all the necessary measures to eliminate any potential threats. This rebirth the seed is going to be within our reach. We must not falter, not jeopardize our work, and work diligently to locate and neutralize the source of this anomaly.”

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