Bad User on Device

(for Damon Knight)

Though Riley awakens only two hours after falling asleep, her alarm will not negotiate peace. By the time the coffee’s aroma pervades the kitchen, she realizes she will never shake off this hangover in time to confront the office smilers where she interns at Life Inc., America’s premier self-help conglomerate. She sighs with the knowledge there are days to enjoy and others, like today, just to survive. To guarantee her survival, she gobbles some pills before stepping into the wintry city.
A few seconds later, a nondescript package the size of a shoe box thuds upon the sidewalk a few steps ahead, splattering her Life uniform with street sludge. She expects to spot a Smile delivery drone above, but the sky shows nothing but a snow-threatening slate.
Pedestrians step around the delivery. No one stops. Riley moves closer and hazards a glance at the label: no letters, just logograms—she assumes Chinese.
It is heavier than she expects. Once she carries it back to her porch, its brown wrapping paper peels off into a neat pile to uncover a box just as anonymous. She hesitates only a moment before plunging through the flaps.
Something, folded tight like an accordion, glows. Its luminous white surface becomes violet where her fingers press. She opens its plies to reveal what appears to be a diving helmet. As she studies its smooth face, it repaints itself into a looking glass with her befuddled expression prominent.
This is some elaborate prank she decides. Her eyes sweep the street and the neighboring windows, hunting for telltale evidence of someone filming her, but the city has gone quiet as a cemetery: no cars, buses, trucks, or pedestrians.
Riley is alone.
She shudders, a visceral response, as if her body knows some secret her mind refuses to acknowledge, but such need for explanations has passed. Something not of this world, an alien artifact, lies upon her lap. Her unbridled curiosity drives her to decision before her courage fails. She raises the helmet and envelopes her head in a pleasant world of sunlight and warmth.
A meadow with a multitude of flowers surrounds her. Birds sing and bees buzz. A tapestry of scents flood her consciousness. The vibrant actuality of her discovery stuns her. She cannot even gasp.
Above her, a scroll unfolds from one horizon to another. In a few sentences, she confirms not only is it English, but certainly a license agreement, breaking the spell, for there is nothing alien about it. She knows how to proceed, reaching high with her hands to slide the contents across the sky, to the very end, where a black button reads, “I agree.” There is no other option, so she reaches up to heaven and presses.
“Your universe is a simulation of E8-tesseracts in quasi-crystalline possibility space. Would you like a demo of the simulation controls?” a deep androgynous voice, rich in cadence, asks. Riley likes the voice but hates instructions.
“Not when I’m this late for work,” she snaps.
The world goes dark, but then the outline of three doors appear, painted in fluorescent colors: hot magenta, neon aqua blue, and Day-Glo green.
“Pick a door,” the voice says.
Riley chooses green. The sky returns but an effusion of a nearby power plant’s smokestack taints its cerulean expanse. Every flower in the brown meadow is dying. Vultures, the only birds, circle a stinking corpse on a hill of landfill, an autobiography of human waste: wrappers, cans, plastic bottles, used tires, discarded food, a rag doll, even a laptop computer. She trudges flat-footed forward, dodging trash and regretting each step, but unable to cease until her quaking feet stand before her naked smoldering flyblown flesh.
“Ready to continue?” the voice chirps.
“Yes,” she says.
Now she stands in a village of thatched huts. The hot air is bone dry, the sun unforgiving. A rivulet of sewage trickles down the dusty lane. Figures move in the shade. Approaching, Riley observes children suffering from marasmus, their frames emaciated, horseflies picking at scabs beneath wide hopeless pleading eyes. A starving woman about her age emerges from the hut, suckling an infant son with a deflated breast, while her daughter, little more than an animated skeleton, lifts a trembling arm towards the recoiling American.
The juxtaposition of the two images, the seething landfill and this horror of need, breaks her.
“Stop!!! Please stop.”
The response is immediate.
“To end the simulation press OK. To continue, press Cancel.”
Riley presses OK.

The End


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