The gleaming vista of far-off stars spread past the reach of the wide viewport window. Aocea, once #1031, tried a reflexive roll backwards but instead stumbled on her newfound feet. "What is this place?" she gasped.
"A simulation," Jiby replied.
Aocea knew about simulations. She had gone through some back at The Smiley School, where they showed you just what it was like to play The Game.
"You're still plugged in on the ship, so you can't see the real thing yet," Jiby continued. "But this is as close to reality as you'll get for a while. You see those lights in the darkness out there? Those are stars. Each of them has the potential to be home to a new planet - a new permanent home - for our people. But as you can see, they're so very far away. Our people have lived and died on this ship for generations spanning thousands of years. Do you know what a year is? A year is about the time it would take to play over 500,000 Games."
Aocea was shaking her head.
"People went crazy after a while, spending day after day in this endless night with nothing but each other and the cold stars for company. So many lives, so many years, doing nothing, morale sinking lower and lower into despair with each unsuitable planet we discovered." The Elite paused for dramatic effect. "And so we invented the Minesweeper simulation. Or, what you always knew as your life. A solution. Activity. Control.
"Where once there was mindless tedium, there now was The Game. Where once there was God, there now was the Minesweeper. Where once there was this thing known as democracy, now rulers are chosen by chance; and of course, now and then by the Head Elite. Every time one of you die in The Game, your memory of that life gets wiped, you get a new number, and emerge as another young Smiley ready for school. After so many repeats of the cycle, life in the simulation starts to seem perfectly normal. So almost no one questions it. The system is perfect."
Aocea looked at Jiby in despair. "Why are you telling me this?"
Jiby smiled. "So that you know what's at stake. And why you musn't go back and mess it all up."
The scene changed again, and now they were standing high up on a catwalk overlooking a view of perhaps a hundred suspension chambers arranged in neat rows on the lower levels, each of them holding a person whose eyes were closed to the world, their minds far away in digital yellow spherical bodies.
"Behold the people of the Smiley Kingdom," Jiby said softly.
#1121 found the Smiley King waiting at the opening of the final corridor before the Kingdom.
#1121 rolled tentatively up to him and looked into the curiously sad face of #936. "I don't want to die," he said in a small voice.
#936 gave a grim smile. "You'll be fine," he said in a faraway look in his eyes. "It's going to be all right." A pause. "I promise."
And when the kid won the Game and the sunglasses and the free pass into the Upper Realms, the other Smileys broke out cheering. It had been some time since a Smiley had entered the Upper Realms. #936 saw his joy and could not bear the idea of ruining his happiness. Soon it would be his turn, and his own retirement from this tortuous cycle. And the secret of The Game would become once more a complete secret, fully hidden from all who played it.
#936 looked down on the faces of his fellow Smileys, each one so unsuspecting, none of them knowing that they were all being played with by beings other than the Minesweeper. Helpless, each one of them, caught up in a game they knew nothing about and were powerless to control. And he himself just as helpless as any one of them.
Think of the Upper Realms, #936 told himself. He would soon be there. Soon he would no longer need to be bothered with all these worries. Soon he would be in paradise, and he would be able to forget.
He could forget.
For now we see through sunglasses, darkly...
"So these are the Upper Realms."
In reality they awoke and stumbled on unused legs, blinking unused eyes in the fluorescent glare of the ship's interior light. All around lay the rest of the Smiley Kingdom in blissful ignorance, minds trapped in a cyclical world of Game after Game.
"And you can never go back." The Head Elite's face wore a smile of grim satisfaction. "Not everyone can handle the truth."
"What makes you think we can?"
"Because you questioned the system, and you dared to dream," said a voice out of the darkness, and into the light walked a group of ten. #39 led the pack, his eyes still sparking with the old defiance that had freed him. "The system has no room for those like that," he continued, looking each of the newcomers in the eye. "And now you know the truth."
Another voice rang out: "#936?"
The once Smiley king shifted his gaze from #39 to the new speaker.
"I told you we'd be free one day."
but then face to face.
And as #936 gaped at the one he'd given up for dead, #841 broke into a familiar smile and extended a hand to help his friend forward.
"Welcome to the real world," he said with a laugh. "...It's a big place."
copyright Anakin McFly January 2003 - February 2008
...Well, that's it, folks. It's been a fun five years, which I think is the longest I've taken to write and complete a story. Thanks for all your reviews that motivated me to keep going. I never thought that this fic would become what it did, seeing as how it was originally meant to be a short story that ended at the first chapter.
Shameless plug: Go check out my websites - there's theological stuff on my homepage, and I'm now also the creator and webmaster of the Keanu Reeves defence site 'Whoa is (Not) Me' (including photographical proof that he is not a tree) and the Back to the Future Fan Fiction Directory.
So... yeah. This is goodbye. Leave a review on your way out. :P