1. The world is not real?
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With a loud squishing sound, I sliced through the throat of the final Boss. His 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 dungeon of the World’s End, my last assignment.

[QA #954137 has been completed, ending session]

After I closed the system notice, the system cut off my connection to the test game. As soon as I crawled out of the VR capsule, a rough voice of my boss caught me off-guard, “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. To show him how much I cared about his words, I was silent and diverted my stare to the huge hall full of old capsules. Only a few lights were up, illuminating a path to the exit. Hundreds of people could work here, but only me, Lucy and our stupid boss still served here. 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.

“Yeah, leave it to yourself.” I said to him, without sparing even a glance. At least one thing was positive - no more of him in my life. Next, I left the building at a steady pace, because I had no reason to linger there anymore. I became a lone wolf.

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 per usual, I came to a small bar smashed between two enormous apartment complexes. The moment I walked in, 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 and tried to ignore the void inside me. Yeah, hello sadness. Patrick prepared a whiskey for me, as he always did. Although he was way over 80 years old, his hands were still steady.

“Is it over? Are you fired?”

Raising my head, I stared at his hands before I finally said, “Yes, I am a wolf now.”

Quickly smashing another drink on the bar, he said, “Even the tester of the game?” Then he paused, while I drank at least half of the bottle and gazed out of the small window at the back. “The machines replaced everyone! The end of the world as we know it is near.”

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

“Lad, this time it’s different. 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.”

 

While I drank at least ten drinks, we talked about how everything was great before and the world is heading to our doom. A little tipsy, I was 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, lad. The Terminator was right; we all will get annihilated.”

“Was he? I don’t think so!” I yelled out and my conscience screamed I upset people around, but as 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.”

Patrick nodded. “Lad, you are right, I saw it with my own eyes. The society had accepted the robots and now I can’t even order a whiskey without the touch of a robot. Do you know who my couriers, producers, ordering services, or drivers are? Robots! Do you know who I meet on the streets? Yes, robots!” The old man was complaining again, per usual.

“Patrick, if I could get into the game, I would go there too.” Yet I couldn’t, I was telling a story about being a tester to everyone willing to listen. Yes, the money and opportunity was good, but for what price? 

“Who was that stupid fellow, who decided that a classic fantasy RPG would be a safe heaven, instead of a sci-fi world? The youngers could have spaceships, proper toilets and such!”

“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!”

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

“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, it had 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 over five years, so they kicked me, the best exploiter.”

I took a sip and contemplated about it. The people were living inside a game, but voluntarily. That was like a Matrix! “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. The only solution is… 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 him, 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 2160 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 will 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 my lip to prevent me 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, 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.”

“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!” 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. 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.

“Gentlemen, welcome to our twentieth run. As we discussed, this time our starting date is only one day before the start of the game. I am sorry, Jeffrey, but you are out of luck this time. We can’t give you an advantage by playing sooner. When I was doing a routine check, I found one anomaly,” he said, and was studying their faces with a stern look, almost like he was searching for a culprit.

“We transported someone back along with us. I suggest investigating the incident and eliminating the threat. This time, we must not fail and find it.”

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