[CW note: cursing, potentially offensive commentary on religion]
I've never heard so many sirens. Sure, I've been a passerby of some pretty gnarly car wrecks - the ones that close four-lane highways and require half the emergency responders in the county - but this is something else entirely. Maybe some federal intelligence agency already has a plan or something, but we're not prepared for it, at least not here in Oklahoma.
Typical of tornado alley residents, I'm on my front porch staring at it rather than figuring out whatever it is I'm supposed to be doing now.
A new piercing sound erupts from my cellphone. It's a national emergency broadcast, opening to the Situation Room where the President and her Cabinet are obviously holding in horror.
Our usually confident President hesitates before beginning:
"This message requires the immediate attention of all Americans. At 10:41 AM eastern standard time on Wednesday, September 28th, there was a report of an unidentifiable thread-like mark in the sky roughly 45,000 feet above Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The pilot reported that the mark was positioned parallel to the earth and seemed to gradually lengthen, leaving a trail of darker sky, per his description, that traced the mark's transverse movement North and West." Her fingers are laced to combat visible shaking in her hands, but we can all see the red rimming her eyes.
"Since the initial discovery, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency have been partnering with the UN to investigate the situation and assess the likelihood of a threat," she says. It's clear that this address has her on the brink of panic. "We have been watching the situation intently and now, thanks to video and digital evidence uncovered by the FBI, we have undeniable proof that we are all in danger."
"At this time the White House is issuing direction to gather necessary documentation and emergency supplies. Take shelter in low or underground spaces, ideally those that are graded for nuclear war. If you will be driving, do so carefully and abide by traffic laws - you will be with your family faster by driving safely than by increasing your chances of a wreck."
I know she has more to say, but my ears are full of cotton and I am gripping the guardrail that frames my front steps as I slowly find myself seated on the ground.
Roaring jets from Tinker AFB join the sirens. I squeeze my eyes, my fists, my toes - every muscle that I can tense, I do. Inhale, hold four, then forcefully push out all of the tension in my body.
The screaming begins.
I know that it's time for me to look up. It's time for me to see the jets and choppers streaking across the sky. So I do.
And... There is no longer anything holy in this universe.
The tear is not a tear at all - it's a designed opening being unzipped from the other side. Behind the sky is a bright, sterile room with white ceiling tiles and what looks like a panel of blinking LEDs.
One, two, three, four articulated metal structures the size of Devon Tower hook over the edge and pull. It's a fucking hand.
And its mate is reaching in now.
The neighbor's teen girl sprints out of their house before staggering to the ground. She's sobbing, but under that I hear her frantically thinking aloud:
"This is all my fault. This is.. all my fault. I shouldn't have hacked that. I shouldn't.. I've fucked us all. This is all my fault. I outed the simulation and now we're all fucked."
I feel my heart stop. The giant mech-hand thing is heading toward us. Like, our neighborhood specifically.
It's coming for the girl.
Then it will come for each of us. This will be our end, my end.
Interesting thing to learn, then, that I was never real at all.
We got the alarm that one of the test subjects became Aware twenty minutes ago - six of their hours.
Subjects become Aware all the time, maybe a few hundred per day. The balm there is that the majority of the public just shrugs those ones off as conspiracy-theorists too far gone.
This time, though... fuck. We had to implement the emergency all-stop function, effectively pausing our miniature Earth.
"Goddamnit," Xanthe mumbles, running fingers through his hair. "Goddamnit!"
"We can fix this!" I’m right behind Xanthe as he storms aimlessly around the laboratory.
"We've fixed it before. Remember when they figured out the Mayan calendar thing? We just reset, and it turned out okay."
"It did not turn out okay. Not only did they have whispers of memories from before, they came up with a name for the phenomenon that they all thought was just psychological blips when really we just couldn't figure out how to completely wipe the memories. Moreover, they've had a decade in there since that reset and do you see the shitstorm they continue to stir up? Especially the Americans. Holy fuck, what a mess." He rushes back to the experiment area.
"There were 22 years - nearly five centuries in there - between Nostradamus and the 2012 reset; previous to that it was almost five millenia. Yet they've now done it in a decade?" His white-knuckled hands are laced together at the crown of his head, making his auburn hair stick up like a wildfire.
I decide it's not worth it to try and track his movements. I'm a biologist; I know an animal in distress when I see one.
"I think the Mayan reset is the most drastic one we've done before, but this might be call for something even harsher…” His voice thins as he trails off.
"Didn't the Black Death take out nearly a third of Europe? That's at least double the population cut of the Mayans," I posit.
Xanthe's response is soft, calmer than before. "That was different. We didn't introduce that virus, so it wasn't a reset. It was just a subjectively sad situation. The Mayans had to be eradicated because they caught on, and they were damn persistent about it."
He turns to me, realizing something I'd said was off. "How the hell did that detail about the Black Death slip your education? You have a fucking Ph.D. in anthropological biology and you compared the Black Death to the Mayan Reset?"
My face is on fire and I almost piss myself with shame.
"Xanthe," I stop myself, tip-toeing around my keeping my employment.
"Dr. Jallock, isn't this the whole purpose of the experiment? To track how intellect and morality develop over time? We intentionally left them clues to previous discoveries. We let the smart ones procreate if they chose to do so. We've had generations upon generations of humans building onto the accomplishments of their predecessors. Isn't this exponential development exactly what we were looking for in the first place?"
The exhausted lab manager rests his head on the glass terrarium with a thunk.
"Dr. Jallock, I have to say that it seems like you're mourning something that should be celebrated. This is a massive step toward discovering our own history." Here's hoping that was helpful and not patronizing.
"I am the forty-seventh manager of this experiment. It's hard to accept that out of all of them I am the one that gets to see this kind of movement. I can't help but feel like this must be evidence of failure somehow."
I nod, leaving my perch on the desk and walking slowly toward Xanthe. "But it isn't failure. It's science."
"Ares, I'm not particularly impressed with your confidence in science right now." He huffs out a long breath. "Call the director and the chairwoman. They have to sign off on whatever we do next."
"Yes, sir." Severance papers flash behind my eyelids.
We're both pacing the lab when the door beeps, disintegrates, and reappears behind our newcomers: Agency Director, Mr. Elec Sarmus, and Chairwoman Dr. Laken Vannier.
"Good afternoon, Director, sir," Xanthe salutes and I quickly follow.
"Good afternoon, madam Chairwoman."
"Good afternoon. I assume you called us here for good reason, yes?"
My eyes flick between Xanthe and the director, waiting for him to answer the question. Xanthe is stammering, blanched, and generally just a mess.
"The homo-sapiens artificialis have become Aware again, sir," I blurt. Xanthe and the director both look at me from the side; one in relief and the other in suspicion.
Dr. Vannier is the next to speak up: "It appears that Dr. Jallock is feeling ill and may need to be dismissed-"
"No, no, that won't be necessary," Xanthe interrupts, clearly panicked. "I will greatly appreciate your patience as well as the assistance from my head researcher, Dr. Ares Kim." The grit in his voice when he emphasizes my title makes my toes curl.
"Pleasure to be of service."
She nods slowly as her gaze moves from Xanthe, to me, and back. "Yes, I see... Well, as you were saying, Dr. Kim?"
I glance at my watch. "Roughly 45 minutes ago, a subject at location 35° 13' 21.2484'' N, 97° 26' 22.1136'' W successfully found and hacked our in-lab security cameras. She saw and recorded our basic lab activities, including checking on the experiment via the microscope lens we disguised as the moon."
"Is that 45 minutes our time or theirs?" Elec strides toward the terrarium.
I clear my throat. "Our time, sir."
"You're telling me that one of them has had fifteen hours to spread the Awareness? They've got the fucking internet now, Jallock." He turns toward Xanthe. "Why wasn't something done sooner? Get IT on that camera hack immediately."
"Dr. Jallock wanted your approval, as well as yours, Madam Chairwoman, before proceeding." His head angles toward me, predatory.
"Oh, but we did pause the experiment immediately, despite that being slightly out of protocol."
"Well, since this centuries-long experiment is apparently under the guidance of a post-doc now-" My eyes go wide as the director throws his hand in my direction. "- what is your input on the situation?"
I can feel Xanthe's rage burrowing into the side of my head. "Ah, well, we were discussing past resets and the ramifications of each plus the evidence we have of compounding intellect. Dr. Jallock brought up that we could reset the experiment to or past the extent of the Mayan civilization. And truly, sir, I'm only speaking up for Dr. Jallock momentarily. He has been a diligent, hands-on researcher as well as a meticulous lab manager." That's right, Ares. Save your boss's ass so you can save your own.
"I understand that Elec may have spoken in frustration when he requested your input, but I actually think it would be worthwhile to hear it," says Dr. Vannier. It’s so nice to have a leader whose confidence doesn’t come with a side of verbal abuse.
Deep breath. "I think we should try something completely different this time."
Shock, mistrust, and curiosity on their faces. I'll let you guess which is which.
"What we have here is a new opportunity. We can watch the subjects process the confirmations and denials of their cosmic beliefs - those who already believed that they were living in a 'simulation', such as the teenage girl and those she shared with, will now be confronted with the fact that they were right. Sort of." I quick-step to the terrarium. "And those that believed in a deity, we can watch them either come to terms with what they just witnessed or live in cognitive dissonance."
Elec butts in. "They're already dripping cognitive dissonance. Do we really need more? And wouldn't it be cruel to force people to pit their core beliefs against new evidence?"
"Yes. I hate to put it this way, but your points counteract each other." I pull up the virtual display and open to historical statistics on spirituality. "Science and mathematics have had cyclical renaissances that contrast with the similar eras of spirituality. They'll spend a few centuries primarily exploring the natural world and inventing tools to work within it, then some powerful man - it's always a man - declares that science is the work of the devil. They convince each other to rely more on religion than fact and suddenly we see declines in literacy, stagnation of technological advancements, increased medical deaths as expertise and proven procedures are abandoned, and higher rates of domestic-violence related deaths among women and children," I explain. "This has been the case for the last few spiritual renaissances."
Dr. Vannier approaches the experiment.
"Yes, I read your most recent report. If I remember correctly, though, there was something different this time," she says.
"Yes, that's right." Xanthe is standing up now and looks like less of a wreck. "Dr. Jallock, would you like to take over?"
"Actually," he starts, looking a bit apologetic, "You're doing very well, Dr. Kim. I think you should continue. Dr. Vannier, Mr. Sarmus, I hope you'll take confidence in my assistant as I have done. I believe they've proven themself to be an excellent scientist."
More eyebrows raised, but Xanthe's face only shows professionalism, except a nearly-imperceptible raise to the corner of his mouth.
Alright then. It's showtime.
"Of course." I swipe through the display and zoom into the last three experimental centuries. "Most recently, science and spirituality have been nearly neck-and-neck in their endeavors to win over the population. Many of the subjects even participate in both; some have been able to do so with minimal cognitive dissonance as they choose to believe that there is a cosmic creator and that said creator set up the blueprint for all of mankind’s progress. These people tend to be the most well-adjusted and find multiple means of support for mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing.”
“ There are also, of course, very loud and influential proponents of organized religion that deny proof of scientific facts. Acts of violence are more common in these groups than in others. In fact, we have examples in a few different regions of theocracies in which women and girls are, de jure or de facto, chattel that can be punished as the relevant man sees fit."
"That isn't to say that populations that condemn organized religion are perfect. In some cases, the people only have their government to support their needs, and in most of these cases the government in question cannot hold up for all of the people depending on its resources. These cultures tend to have high suicide rates as the social standards imposed on them are incredibly strict with little room for failure. Most organized religions do at least provide the practice of redemption for flaws, which is helpful for some people."
I take a breath. Three very important sets of eyes stare at me, waiting for more.
"If we soft reset, like we have done in the past, the stretches of time between mass Awarenesses will continue to shorten, eventually making it pointless to continue. If we hard reset, entirely restarting the experiment, it will be centuries before we reach such an interesting precipice as we are currently standing on, even if we use one of the prepared Earth copies."
"We're looking at a species that is on the brink of globalization or mass isolation, a world power is fighting itself to either uphold democracy or install theocracy, common folk are either persecuting or praising capitalist overlords - we could see so much change if we just stick it out."
No one stops me.
I'm about to lose my job or get a new lab all for myself.
"I think we should give them a glimpse of the true reality. More than the glitches they've found in the past - I think we should make ourselves clearly and undeniably known to them. We could induce a hybrid belief system that equally values cosmology and cosmogony."
Dr. Vannier crosses her arms. "What you're suggesting," she begins, "is that we essentially... become their gods?"
My heart flutters. She got it.
"Yes, Dr. Vannier. Essentially: we give them the opportunity to deny what they see with their own eyes, but we keep it consistent. All of humanity can see or otherwise sense us, not just some. We don't introduce new verbal codes of conduct or try to change their morals. We don't tell them their behaviors are wrong or right, because we are still objective researchers at the core. We tell them that we exist and that we watch, but assure them that they and their lives are real."
"I want to know if they will still choose to fight and deny each other and if so, why? What reasons will they find to disvalue each other when the issue of core belief is finally settled?"
Now Elec joins us, looking into the terrarium with questions in his eyes. "Dr. Kim, could you piece together for me how these answers would contribute to our agency's mission?"
"Of course, sir." I scratch the 'I'm not particularly impressed' comment from Xanthe earlier out of my mind.
"Our mission is to discover the origin of our own civilization and avoid whatever caused our flight from Earth One. We are at an impasse where in order to pursue that end we must assume that our experiment is, in fact, at its breaking point. We aren’t sure what caused our own Humanity to leave, but this could be where we see how to not rip each other to pieces or make the planet inhospitable."
"We've spent all this time perfecting a model Earth with its own model homo-sapiens and have matched it to our surviving ancient historical records with shocking accuracy. Truly, I don't think any of us were expecting history to repeat itself so literally." I chuckle. " This could be the information we need to inform our future. I believe the potential impact is great."
A beat of silence. My heart drops.
“Okay,” Dr. Vannier breathes. “You should use the mechanical grip adaptors to keep it sterile. You have my go.”
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Hi Shawn! This was such a brilliant take on the prompt. I loved the vivid language and the way you let us have a glimpse into an alternate world. I also enjoyed the debate which you kept highly philosophical without being too “out there” to understand. My favorite line was: I'll let you guess which is which. Congratulations on the short list!
'You take the red pill... you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. 'Morpheus.
Kinda cool. Thought you were going into embryo as first person for a moment.
I like the self awareness and the similar theory stuff. I was reading about that recently, that we could be in a simulation inside a simulation. Elon Musk seems to be a big fan of it and so are Muse, one of my favourite bands. Are you a simulation theory believer?
Thank you! Not in particular, but I don't write it off as impossible.
It seems a strange thing for people to obsess over. If it’s true then there’s nothing we could do anyway.