A Solipsist’s Country
by Evelyn M. Lewis
My name is Benjamin. I work in search-and-rescue.
Most search-and-rescue missions are done by the police. They send helicopters out to the middle of the wilderness and pick up hikers who have gotten lost or been attacked by wolves or something like that. I don’t work for the police. And I don’t go after missing hikers.
I save people from virtual reality.
Whenever something goes wrong, whenever there’s a malfunction with the neural simulator and somebody stays under too long, whenever somebody’s mother finds them unresponsive after 15 hours and starts to worry that they can’t wake up, my job is to go in after them.
Sometimes there isn’t even a real problem; some kid didn’t realize how long they’d been in there. Happens all the time. Sometimes there’s a bug and they can’t come out of the dive until I’ve fooled around and run an antivirus. And sometimes there’s a real issue, but that’s rare. I never failed to save someone from what’s usually nothing more than their own stupidity.
The situation seemed pretty typical when I entered the house. His mom opened the door, her lips folded into an anxious line. “Are you the—”
“Thank goodness. Come in.”
I slipped my shoes off in the foyer. “Where is he?” I asked.
“He’s right in here.” She took me down the hall and opened the door to his bedroom. He was lying on his back on the bed, with the wires taped all over his skull. The main one, of course, the thick one with all the red and yellow wires, was plugged into the little port on the back of his neck.
I looked him over a bit. His lips were pale and dry. His muscles were slightly tense but looked weak and wasted. I snapped my fingers in front of his face, just to make sure he wasn’t faking. Teenagers will do anything to get attention from their parents.
“Have you got any clue as to what the issue might be?” I asked.
“That’s the thing,” she said. “There isn’t one. Not as far as I can tell.”
I wasn’t too surprised to hear that; it was often hard to tell from the outside what was going on. “How long has he been under?”
“Two days.” I heard the tremble in her voice. “Thirty-six hours.”
“That is a long time,” I admitted. “He must be getting pretty dehydrated.”
She nodded fretfully.
I gave her a confident half-smile. When you work in this business, you have to look professional to the people who pay you and look like a professional gamer to the people you rescue. It’s a double personality, but I don’t mind. “Don’t worry. I see it all the time. What were his gaming habits like before this?”
She pursed her lips together, and then finally decided to answer me. “To be honest, Isaac has been in there almost 24/7 for several weeks now. Last time I saw him up and walking around, it was only to eat, and barely that. He wouldn’t speak to me when I tried to talk to him. I think he’s been sleeping plugged in.”
“Hmm.” I bent down and gave the hardware another quick check. “Well, I can’t just yank him out, but you know that. There could be serious brain damage.”
She gave a terrified look, so I quickly followed with, “But there are other ways. Let me go try to speak to him. Maybe he can tell me what the problem is.”
* * *
I spawned in-game on a rocky hill overlooking a lush green valley. I knew I was in the same render zone as Isaac, so he shouldn’t be too hard to find, unless he quickly moved to another area of the map.
I was struck, as I often was, by the beauty of the virtual world. Not all of them were like this. I pity the man who manages to get stuck in some sort of virtual hellscape. Once I rescued a guy who’d trapped himself in a lake, and was stuck continually drowning and respawning. Not exactly a fun pastime.
But this area was colorful, pleasant, and intensely vivid. I walked down the hill into the forest, scanning for any signs of movement. There was only a squirrel crossing the path, and the movement of small white butterflies through the sun-streaked atmosphere. The leaves were bright red and orange and waved in a gentle wind.
It’s a funny feeling, being alone in virtual reality. After a while you start to feel a little trapped, even though you have miles and miles of open space, and perfect liberty. I guess it’s just a bit strange to know that no matter how far you go, whatever you see, whatever you discover, really, there’s nothing out there. Nobody except you.
I kept walking.
He probably saw me before I saw him. He was at the top of a cliff overhead, busy at something, but I was too far away to tell what. I waved my arms to get his attention. A few moments later, he noticed me and started to descend around the side of the cliff, tacking back and forth on the dirt trail. I waited for him.
When he got to the bottom, he strode up to me casually. “Haven’t seen you before. What’s your name?” His avatar was too decked out to be anything but a player character. He had some kind of overpowered dragon armor, and was carrying an absolutely tremendous translucent sword.
“Hey, man,” I said, “you can call me Ben. I’m from search-and-rescue. I’ve been sent from outside to find you.”
“Oh really? Who sent you?”
“Well actually” — there was no use in hiding the truth, I decided — “I’m being paid by your mother.”
“Do you know how long you’ve been in here?”
He gave me a long, piercing look, and I couldn’t tell what was going through his mind. Finally he said, “Yeah.”
“You do?” I said. “It’s been thirty-six hours. Are you having some kind of issue with the neural interface?”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I could come out any time I want to.”
I clamped down on the frustration I felt building in me. It’s possible to get addicted to the virtual world. If you’re someone who doesn’t have any particularly pressing cares in real life, sometimes the escape seems better.
“You won’t be doing so great for long,” I said. “Your body’s getting rapidly dehydrated, and malnourished soon, too, at this rate.”
“I feel fine,” Isaac said, and turned around and started walking back toward the mountain.
I was momentarily dumbstruck. How could anybody actually be that stupid? “Isaac!” I shouted. “Listen to me. You’ve got to pause. Take a break. Come out. Take care of yourself.”
“If I go,” he said, starting to climb, “I can’t come back. Anyway, why should I listen to you? You’re just an NPC.”
“Me?” I followed him up the path. “Why would you think that? Why would a Non-Player Character say any of the stuff that I’m saying? They’re just computers.”
“Because,” said Isaac, “the AI learns from conversations with me. It parrots things back. Words. Phrases. It eventually starts to sound like me.”
“I’m not an NPC!”
“NPCs don’t know they’re NPCs.” He climbed over a rock, and I walked around it. I couldn’t let him get away from me.
“So you’ve had this conversation before? How often do you try to convince the NPC’s they’re not real?”
I shook my head, slightly weirded out.
By that time, we had gotten to the top of the ridge. I climbed up onto it after Isaac, and for the first time got a good look at what was there.
There was a dog. It was a wolfhound or a mutt of some sort, a grayish color, and it was lying on its side, bleeding. However, it was clearly still alive, and it growled when it saw Isaac. I knew it wasn’t real, but the sight of it still made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
Not so for Isaac. He raised his glass longsword. As the dog tried to crawl away, he stabbed it a few more times. It whimpered piteously.
I lurched forward. “What?! St—”
“Why do you care? It’s not real. It’s not like it can feel anything.” Isaac turned on me, holding the longsword.
I backed off a pace. “I know, but... why? Is that what you were doing? Killing the dog?”
“Who cares?” said Isaac.
“I... It’s...” it was hard to explain. “What the hell,” is all I said.
“Listen,” said Isaac, “have you ever been — I don’t know why I’m asking you this — have you ever been on the edge of a tall building? And as you look down, as you look over the edge and feel the wind and the distant rushing of the cars below, you hear, in spite of your reason and your common sense, one voice. And do you know what that voice says?”
I looked back at the wolfhound. It was twitching in a pool of blood.
“Jump. That’s what it says. Not because you want to die, or anything like that. Just to fall into the void, just to know what it feels like to cross the line, to do the one thing that you must not do. And that’s what I do, Ben. Because I can.”
And with no further hesitation, he thrust the longsword through my chest.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Evelyn M. Lewis