Real Question

Owen sat down on a park bench to enjoy his lunch. He watched strangers walking by while the woman’s rant replayed in his mind.

“To break out of the simulation, a sacrifice must be made,” she said to him, only him. The frantic woman grabbed him by the lapels and stared into his eyes when she spoke, then vanished into the crowd. Owen spent his lunch hour analyzing every detail of as many strangers as he could. He searched for any hints that the woman might be right, but found none. He decided the woman was probably crazy and went back to work. Throughout the rest of the day, and even once he got home, the thought gnawed at the back of his mind. It only stopped when he managed to fall asleep.

He forgot about it by the morning and went about his normal routine. For his lunch hour, he headed for another hot dog. As he approached the vendor the same dark-haired woman stepped out of the crowd, grabbed his lapels and stared into his eyes.

“To break out of the simulation, a sacrifice must be made,” she repeated, then released him. Owen tried to keep his eye on her, but she vanished into the crowd again. No one else seemed to have heard the woman’s strange advice. Owen looked at his phone to check the date. It was definitely the next day.

“Twice just for me, huh?”  Owen chuckled to himself. “Well, this is interesting,” Owen shrugged and continued his trek for a hotdog. He sat on the same bench and watched the flow of strangers again. This time he noticed it immediately. Though he regularly sat in the park for lunch, he rarely paid attention to what was going on around him. Today he realized all the strangers were the same as the day before. He noticed the same child with the same yellow balloon lose his grip on it again. He noticed the same woman slapping the same creep that grabbed her again like the day before. “Neat.” He smiled.

After lunch, he began paying attention at work. Owen worked as a bank teller but hardly ever saw the same person. His transactions for his first hour back at work were all from strangers he’d never seen before. He began to doubt the simulation idea until he noticed an elderly woman being helped by one of his coworkers. Owen did not know the old woman’s name, but he knew she visited the bank frequently. Thinking back on it, Owen realized he had seen her every day. He looked around the rest of the bank and recognized several faces that he never paid attention to.

“Just me?” he wondered. All of his clients were new faces, but it seemed his coworkers all helped the same people. He glanced at Susan, the teller helping the old woman. She was wearing her favorite yellow dress. The same one she wore every other Thursday. The dress looked so beautiful on her that Owen noted the first time she wore it and kept an eye out for it again. After a couple of months of paying attention to her wardrobe, he was able to know what day it was by her outfit. He did not think much of it until he looked at it with the simulation idea in mind.

“AHEM,” a stern voice said in front of him. “Can you help me?” Owen realized he spaced out and faced his new customer, a balding, middle-aged man that Owen had never seen before.

“Sorry, Sir.” Owen apologized and dismissed the simulation idea for the moment to slip back into work mode. That night he fell asleep wondering about the limits of the simulation. In the morning he called in sick to work, then he dressed and drove to the bank. Instead of going in he stayed in his car and watched the doors. No one approached the bank all morning.

“So it’s for me… but it’s not aware of me?” Owen wondered. He knew if he were working there would be people in the bank. But he also assumed if the simulation kept track of him, it would know he was staring at the bank. At noon he felt a familiar hunger pang. He stepped out of his car to walk to the nearby hot dog stand but decided to try something different instead. He got back into his car and drove to a pizzeria on the other side of town. After parking, he stepped out of his car. The second he closed the door the same woman from the previous two days rushed up to him and grabbed his shirt.

“To break out of the simulation,-” Owen grabbed her hands off his shirt.

“Not interested, lady,” he said and shoved her hands aside. He kept walking toward the restaurant, but she ran in front of him again.

“You know?” She asked. Owen silently walked around her. She reached out and grabbed his shoulder. “There’s a way out!” she said. Owen shrugged. He reached the entrance to the restaurant and walked in. He was surprised when he heard the woman enter the building behind him. He sat down at a booth and the stranger sat in front of him.

“I can help you escape,” she said. Owen stared at her.

“And then what?” he asked

“What?” she gave him a confused look. “What do you mean, ‘and then what?’   You’ll be OUT.” Owen nodded.

“Uhuh. And then what? I have to find another job? Are there even jobs out there? I’m already comfortable here.”

“But it’s not real,” she stressed. Owen shrugged again but added a smirk.

“What’s ‘real’ anyway? Everything is electrical signals interpreted by the brain. Who’s to say you’re not still in a simulation out there?” he asked. “Besides…,” his smirk grew into a broad smile. “…now that I know what I know, I get to find out how everything works. I can set myself up pretty nicely here.”

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