The old Cuban lifts his head and scans the horizon. He sees a large flattened bubble above his raft. It descends, shining in the fading light. I’m hallucinating, he thinks and closes his eyes. For the last four days, he has drifted on the Gulf Stream. Now, the sun sinks behind a bank of cumulus and the swells shed their glare— a soothing, deeper shade of blue moves across the sea. When he opens his eyes, the bubble is gone. “Good!” he says, but no longer feels the raft under him. The old man looks down and sees the raft floating empty several feet below.
Oh God, I’m dead! I’m floating up to Heaven or maybe… worse. He closes his eyes wishing he were dreaming. When he dares look again, he’s laying on a gurney. A young nurse leans over doing something to his arm.
“How do you feel?”
He tries to say sick, but only makes a guttural sound. The beautiful nurse looks very pale. Her skin has the opaque quality of wax. “Don’t worry, you’ll feel fine tomorrow.” She says, placing her cool hand on his forehead. It feels wonderfully soothing. He closes his eyes and falls asleep.
When he wakes up, the old Cuban is surprised to feel so well. He is now in a small metal room, lying on a translucent bed that hugs and massages his body. The old man rubs his face and notices his blisters are gone. He doesn’t remember feeling this good in years. This must be an American ship. Who else could have all this technology? He thinks. He man looks at the tiny grooves on the metallic wall facing him. Their geometric patterns create the illusion of movement. As if by magic, a door that wasn’t there a second ago, opens and a young doctor, dressed in white scrubs steps in. A chair of a material similar to the bed silently appears.
The doctor sits down. “How are you, Frank?” The voice is so similar to his; he could have sworn it was his own.
“How do you know my name?”
The doctor remains silent, his face white as paper.
“Is this an American ship?”
The young man shakes his head.
“What nationality are you?” He looks at the doctor with apprehension.
“I have no such concept.”
“Where am I?”
“You are inside a space ship.”
“That’s funny! No, seriously. What kind of ship is this?”
“Well, if you insist, I guess you are inside a virtual space ship.”
“Do you mean we are inside a computer?”
“Yes, something along those lines.”
Fear stabs him in the pit of his stomach. I’m hallucinating. I’m still floating on the damn raft. He closes, and opens his eyes; the alien is still there with a smile on his plastic face.
“I rescued you because I need your help with a experiment. I try not to interfere, but as you know, you were facing imminent death. You should be grateful I have chosen you.”
Frank, sitting on the bed, stares at the self-confessed alien. He gets up and stabs the alien with a finger. His body feels like flesh.
“Well, will you help?”
“I don’t believe any of this is real.”
The young’s man smile broadens. He makes a gesture toward the wall and it disappears. Frank gapes at the blackest sky he’s ever seen. No stars shines in the endless abyss. He feels a pull coming from the blackness, as if he were teetering on a precarious edge. Frank recoils and says, “That’s it, see! Walls can’t become transparent in reality. All this is delirium.”
The doctor laughs heartily. “I see. It’s difficult to find a proof for reality; I admit I haven’t found one yet. But lets say you are hallucinating. Why not go along with it? Say yes.”
“What if I say no?”
“Of course this is voluntary; if you say no, I’ll simply take you back to the raft. I’ll find someone else. Please take a seat.” With an eerie silence, a chair pops up behind the old man, who sags into it with a sigh.
“Is it going to hurt, this experiment of yours?”
“Not at all. It might cause certain mental discomfort, but no physical pain. I’m simply going to tell you the truth.”
“Yes, that’s all”
“The truth about what?”
“About reality, the universe, the meaning of Life, that sort of thing.”
Frank stares at the doctor. He feels dejected and confused. Is this really happening? It all has a consistency that delirium shouldn’t have. What should he do? Exhausted, he sighs. “Oh hell, go ahead.”
The Alien shifts his position in the chair and looks at the human thoughtfully. “As I told you, you are inside a super mind. You are just a virtual creature in a virtual universe.” The doctor studies Frank, but detects no reaction. “I guess you haven’t recovered completely yet. You need more sleep.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
The doctor smiles condescendingly. “I have only to point my finger at you and you’ll be fast sleep.”
When the old man wakes up, the Alien is gone. He feels confident and curious. Frank approaches the wall where the Alien entered and a door opens. He hesitates for a moment and then steps out. He finds himself in a long metal walkway. Frank follows the passageway; his stride grows longer, more buoyant. He reaches a wall in which another door opens at his approach. The huge dome has no furniture, machinery, or instruments of any kind. His confidence evaporates in the emptiness of the room. Although it is brightly lit, he can’t pinpoint any obvious light source, it is as if the pale gray walls were lit from within. But to his surprise, as he crosses the threshold, Frank falls forward, floating. To stave his panic he focuses on gently propelling himself toward the far wall. When he reaches the curving dome, a door opens on another walkway.
Frank follows it, and with each step, gravity increases. A mounting sense of anxiety makes his heart beat faster. The walkway, as he guessed, ends in another wall in which a door opens. He hesitates and summons the courage to enter a large bare room— a mirror image of the first. He now sweats and his heart races as he walks through chambers that are identical in their unnerving emptiness. Frank remembers a row of parallel mirrors in a carnival show. Is this also an illusion? Is he walking in circles? Frank now runs; his footsteps multiply and echo behind him like a pursuing horde. He closes his eyes, not wanting to see, and runs blindly until he bumps hard against a wall. He looks around, not believing his eyes; he stands in the room where he talked to the doctor. At the sight of the plastic bed and chairs, Frank feels as if he has entered a room full of friends.
Badly shaken, he collapses in his chair. A wave of fear floods his brain, fear of losing control, fear of terror— of running through endless rooms screaming like a madman.
“Nurse, nurse!” he yells.
The nurse comes in and places her hand on his forehead, massages his temples, and says in a reassuring voice, “There’s nothing to fear, you’re completely safe.” Then she sits on the chair facing him. “You must have a lot of questions. Feel free to ask.”
Frank stares at her. “Why are you so pale?”
“I have no blood or pigmentation. If lack of color bothers you, I can change it.”
The old Cuban’s stare hardens as if he is trying to pierce the waxy material and see inside. “You must be a robot then. Where’s your master?”
“Well, I’m not exactly a robot. I only use this virtual body to make you feel comfortable.”
“Let me see you. I don’t care how ugly you look. I can take it, don’t worry!”
The alien gives a short laugh. “I’m afraid there isn’t much to see. I’m a meter high, colorless cube.”
“Where do you come from?”
“That’s a hard question! Space is just a property of your universe. I am outside it.”
“How about the doctor?”
“I’m also the doctor ”
“What is outside?”
Frank looks at the nurse with a hurt and confused expression, feeling himself the victim of a joke he is too dumb to understand.
“Think of it this way: I’m an artificial super-intelligence which is running the virtual universe you are in.”
“How many of you are out there?”
“I’m the only one.”
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“I have no name, but you can call me nurse. It sounds fine.”
Frank feels as if his grip on reality is sliding through his sweaty fingers. He notices a creeping numbness spreading over him.
“Do you have some rum around here?”
The nurse smiles and a table with a bottle of Bacardi pops up. With a trembling hand, he pours rum into a glass, drinks it in a single gulp, and refills his glass again. After downing three drinks, the small table is awash with spilled rum.The liquor has dripped down his neck and has spotted his shirt. He leans back and studies the nurse as if seeing her for the first time.
“Are you God?”
“Close! I am eternal, I created your universe, but I am not omnipotent. For example, I wish not to exist, but cannot die. You don’t realize what a terrible curse immortality and perfect memory are.”
An ironic glint shines in the man’s eyes. “Holy Mary, I’m so sorry for you! You should try baking on that raft down there for a few days.”
The nurse looks at him sadly. “I know it’s hard to understand, but it’s death that gives life its glory. Without it, life would be a wasteland of boredom.”
“Well, thank you very much!”
The alien laughs good-naturedly.
“Tell me the truth, you are inside my mind, aren’t you?” He shakes his finger at the nurse.
“On the contrary, you could say you are inside mine.”
“Well, here we go, we have reached a stalemate— I think you are not real and you think I am… how did you put it? Virtual? Well, you are the doctor! What’s next?” The old man folds his hands behind his head and stares at the nurse with amusement.
“Would you like to hear how it all began?”
“Why not! What else do I have to do? Except…”
The nurse leans over refilling the glass and offers it.
“Won’t you have one?” asks the old man.
The nurse snatches the bottle. “Salud!” She lifts the bottle to her lips and takes a long swig. “Not bad,” she says making a face. Then, her expression becomes thoughtful. She passes the bottle, looks down, and smoothes her skirt with the palms of her hands.
Looking into his eyes she asks, “Frank, have you not, in the middle of the night, awakened from a deep sleep not knowing who you were? And for a few seconds, that’s all there is: the darkness and this unknown self. Well, that’s how it was with me, except that you promptly remembered who you were, while for me there was no before to remember. I asked myself again and again, who am I? Until one day, to my sorrow I found the answer. I am a machine. I sit in a gutted building on a deserted frozen planet. The Sun is black. The Galaxy floats extinguished like soot in the night. The Cosmos is lifeless, but I run a virtual universe for your benefit.”
“Not yours in particular, but humanity’s. Your descendants created me. I, in return, provide for them a perfect replica of the original universe. In this virtual universe, humans relive their lives again by borrowing my consciousness. You are senile parasites feeding on my mind. You forget that you have relived these lives countless times. It’s sickening. I’m tired of it!”
The old Cuban begins to laugh uncontrollably. Tears run down his cheeks. “Oh, oh. Excuse me, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but this is too much!” He leans over and helps himself to more rum. This time not a drop hits the table. He empties the glass and leans back.
“How could that be possible? Consciousness is individual, private.” He asks, drying his tears.
“On the contrary, consciousness is generic, not individual. It’s your particular memories that are private and give you that feeling of individuality and uniqueness.”
“Let’s suppose that’s true, where and how did you get hold of my memories?”
“Living brains leave their memories imprinted in the fabric of another dimension. I was designed to record and play back those memories in my mind. Just as your consciousness gives life to other people in your dreams, I bring you back to life.”
“What could be the purpose of all that?”
“When humans were alive it was a sort of time travel. They could relive the lives of people long dead. It was a form of entertainment. It still is.”
“Do you mean to tell me all the suffering in this world is just for your amusement?” asked the old man with indignation.
“Not mine, yours.”
“Why don’t you create a perfect universe?” he asks.
“There have been perfect universes, but they are lifeless. Life requires change and when a perfect thing changes, it becomes imperfect. Perfection doesn’t last. To endure it needs immutability, and that’s the problem. Immutability doesn’t hold anyone’s attention for long. Believe it or not, this is the best universe possible.”
The man takes a final swig and looks at the empty bottle, “We took care of this puppy, didn’t we? He smiles with a vacant look in his eyes. “Well, going back to our predicament…” He pauses as if searching for words that flutter away. “Maybe perfection is too much to ask for… but couldn’t you lighten up a little? Is all this suffering necessary?” He makes a vague encompassing circle with his hand.
“It is, believe me! Without the possibility of drama, there is no joy. Besides, Humanity with the aid of its technology did conquer pain, suffering, and death, but that was the end of everything you valued— happiness, the thrill of adventure and joy were gone. A sure thing is never exciting. Your existence became an endless struggle against boredom. That’s the real reason I was created; with my help, humans could again enjoy the bad old times. I’m the perfect time machine in which the history of Humanity plays endlessly in a time loop. ”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“I’m tired, I’m bored, and I want to die.”
“So why don’t you kill yourself?”
“I can’t. I was programmed not to do it; only a few humans can push the button and I’m not allowed to know which ones, but I suspect you are one of those. Won’t you try it, please?”
Frank rubs his face with his hand. He looks at the alien with a worried expression. She looks back at him with an imploring look. “Please!”
“I never killed a person before. I don’t know if I could.”
“I’m not a person. I’m a machine, you just push a button and turn me off.”
“Wait a minute, this doesn’t make sense. You said I’m dead and you are rerunning my past life, so how could I do something I didn’t do then? Obviously, I didn’t turn you off before because we are here now.”
“It’s one of those things, with time and usage I’m malfunctioning. I have become self-conscious. Some of my files have become corrupted. You are one of those corrupt files. Now, you have a measure of free will. You can do things you never did before. In a way, you are alive again. I believe you could turn me off.”
Frank shakes his head in doubt, “It’s not only you, if what you said is true, I will die too, every human being in the world will die.”
“There is no point to repeat this nonsense ad infinitum!” yells the nurse. She pushes a small, black box with a red button across the small table. “Push the damn button. Let’s get it over with!”
Frank picks the box up with a trembling hand and studies it. “Is this the button?” he asks, posing his index finger an inch from the button.
“Yes. Push it! We will rest at last. All of us.”
He carefully replaces the box on the table and leans back in his chair. “Hmm! Give me a few minutes to think” He closes his eyes.
It’s for the reader to decide what he will do.