“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You arrived here at our Munich facility this morning to test our new immersion rig.”
With that, Dr. Kitagawa pointed at a different contraption. One I’d never seen before. It looked almost like a giant wheel a person could be strapped to. A variety of gadgets, a visor, a headset, and gloves were connected to it.
“You signed up for our beta test for compensation of 1.000 Euros. The test is scheduled to last between two and four days.”
“Wait, hold on, this is bullshit,” I laughed, but it came out more nervous than I’d hoped for. “I’m still IN the simulation.”
“People who suffer from damage to their visual cortex can often suffer from a different perception of reality. This can not only lead to false interpretations of what’s in front of you, but can also lead to distorted memories. It’s often influenced by the person’s subconscious beliefs and wishes.”
“All right, very funny, first of all, the equipment I used was totally different, and I was offered a compensation of,” but I broke up.
Distorted memories influenced by personal wishes? When I thought about it, would anyone really pay a hundred grand to test some piece of technology?
“For now I’ll have a look at the test results and see if what I found might impede you from joining the test. Depending on those results, it might be better to schedule an examination at a nearby hospital. For now, though, we should start on the general physical examination.”
I nodded and smiled, but I couldn’t shake off the weird feeling that flooded over me. This was a simulation, wasn’t it? They were just trying to fuck with my brain again. There was no damned way I could’ve imagined any of the stuff that happened before!
All right, Jesus Andre, don’t fall for their shit again. You’re in a freaking simulation, and none of this is real.
“Right,” I said to Kitagawa, “let’s go do the stupid fitness test then.”
The man frowned at my answer, but nodded.
The test was way simpler than before. Kitagawa led me to an exercise bike in the back of the room and tested my heart rate and my general stamina, nothing else. The same was true for the psychological evaluation. He just asked me a handful of questions, and that was it. Once it was all over, he called an assistant that led me from the room.
When I stepped outside, I stopped for a moment. The hallway was different. There weren’t any pristine white walls. Instead, it looked like any other office building I’d seen before. Nothing about the place screamed high-tech or fancy.
The same was true for my private quarters. It reminded me of a room in a simple hostel. There was a bunk bed, a small nightstand, and an old cupboard. The assistant who’d led me here excused himself and hurried away.
Once he’d left, I slumped down on the bed and took out my phone.
I opened up WhatsApp and had a look at my messages. The last one I’d sent was to my best friend, telling him about a beta test in Munich I would take part in.
‘Yeah, it’s not a lot of money, but at least I won’t have to eat just ramen for a month,’ I’d written to him.
I frowned at that. It sounded like me. Exactly the way I’d talk about myself, but I didn’t remember writing that message. Hell, I had told no one about the amount of compensation I’d be paid.
“This is bullshit.”
With that, I dropped the phone on the bed next to me and leaned back. None of this was real, anyway. A few minutes later I got up and hit my fist against the wall. I don’t know why I did it, but the result was as expected. The resulting pain felt real enough.
I picked up the phone again and had a look at my emails. It was all there, the instructions, the compensation for my travels, everything. Only the details were all different.
While I read through the emails, someone knocked against the door. When I opened it a nervous man stood outside.
His eyes were wide and darted left and right before he pushed himself past me.
“Hey, what are you-?”
“Quiet. Close the door!”
I laughed and did as he told me. All right, what now?
“Listen, I know this will sound weird, but everything that’s going on here is not what it’s supposed to be.”
“Yeah, no shit,” I said. “This is all just a simulation.”
The man’s face turned grim and a wordless curse escaped his mouth. Then he leaned forward, putting his face right in front of mine.
“All right. You’re NOT in a simulation. They are trying to make you believe you are in one, but that’s not what’s going on here. This whole damn thing has got NOTHING to do with any new virtual reality technology. Did you inspect the damned rig, and all those gadgets? Why’d you need all that for virtual reality? It’s all a front! They’ll run you through test after test after test, reschedule them before they tell you they found some anomaly. Let me guess your brain or your heart, right?”
When I looked up, the man smiled knowingly.
“Where do you think you’re at? Where’s that simulation you’re in taking place?”
“Berlin,” I said in a quiet voice.
The guy grinned. “Mine was scheduled in Dortmund. We’ve got someone here who said they were in Hamburg, another guy just two rooms further down said he went to Munich.”
“So, where the hell are we?”
The guy laughed.
“Don’t you get it? No one knows! We all think we’re in different locations! You might think you’re in Munich or Dresden or Hamburg, but that’s not where we are. Did they give you anything to drink when you arrived? Coffee, water, or maybe a soda?”
I nodded once more.
“They spiced it with some shit, some new, fucked up drug that scrambles up your memory. Once you’re in here, you won’t have a clue anymore what’s real and what’s not. It’s all because of that damned drug! None of the participants here have a clue what’s going on!”
I went back to the bed and picked up my phone. Once more I went over the emails. That’s when I noticed that something else was wrong. The dates. I’d talked to them for almost two weeks, so why were all the emails from the beginning of this month? Then I checked the date on my phone.
I stared at it, confused. Wait, why was it only the 4th? I got here on the 12th, didn’t I? The WhatsApp message I’d sent to my friend yesterday was dated the 3rd. If this was-
“That’s how they get you,” the guy cut me off.
It was right at this point that the door opened again. I recognized Brandt by his trained smile right away.
“Mr. Purlow, nice to meet you, I’m Mr. Zimmer, the CEO of ImagiCom. I can see you’ve already met Mr. Schuster, one of our other participants.”
Schuster’s face changed, and for a moment an expression of pure terror was visible. He fought hard to suppress it before he turned to the supposed CEO.
“Mr. Zimmer, I better get going. I’m sure you have, eh, things to talk about with Mr. Purlow here.”
With that, he gave me and Brandt, no Zimmer, a nod, and hurried from the room.
“All right, Mr. Zimmer,” I started and emphasized the name. “Where’s Mr. Brandt?”
“Brandt? We don’t have anyone working here by that name. I’m not sure who you’re referring to.”
“I’m talking about the man who showed me the introduction video and-“
“Ah, Dr. Kitagawa. His first name is Satoshi, in case you’re wondering. Brilliant man. He informed me about the anomaly he’d discovered during your brain scans. However, he already said it doesn’t seem to be serious. If we make a few changes to the simulation, there shouldn’t be any problems with the beta test.”
He continued to ramble on about the test and what was to come, but I didn’t listen anymore. My head was throbbing. This was all too damn real and way too fucking strange. Would anyone even go through all this effort and create a simulation like this? Why?
As I stood there, I thought about what you’re supposed to do when you find yourself in a dream and want to wake up. Would something like that even work in a simulation? Shit, I had no clue.
“… until then you’re at your leisure, Mr. Purlow. We’d like you to stay in your room if possible, but we understand if you’re interested in the project itself. If you need any additional information, our promotional manager, Mr. Wittich in room 14.B, would be more than happy to have a talk with you. Well, I got to leave now. Thanks again for joining our beta test. Please be at the ready at four to continue with the schedule.”
With that, he left the room. For a moment I stood there, trying to figure out how to prove what was real and what wasn’t. As my eyes scanned the room, I noticed something. It was small and partway hidden behind the ceiling lamp. I could only see it from a certain position. Was that a… camera? Why was it up there and why was it hidden like this? Were they spying on me? I stared at it for a while before I turned away.
Was this really a simulation? Would they put all those details in? Shit, this entire thing was driving me insane.
I couldn’t stay in this room anymore. The longer I sat still, the more confused I got. A few moments later I was outside again and started to walk down the hallway.
A lot of other people in office attire flocked the hallway, going through their normal workday. Yet, somehow, when I passed them, they all looked up, watched me, and whispered to one another. It made my skin crawl in the worst possible way. Something was definitely wrong here.
As I continued, I wondered how big this place was. It felt like the hallway went on forever. I passed room after room and other identical hallways. For a moment I felt disoriented, as if I was trapped in a maze.
I was about to follow down a different hallway when I bumped into Schuster. He looked up at me with a serious expression.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” he whispered at me.
“I just saw, I saw what they’re doing to, good god,” he shivered before he got a hold of my arm and pulled me after himself.
Schuster walked normally, trying his best to make a bit of small talk. As he dragged me along, I saw how sweaty he was and how much he fought to keep the anxiety at bay.
“What did you see?” I asked him again.
“I, I don’t know, there are people strapped to these things, but they’re bleeding and,” he broke up again. There was yet another group of office workers ahead of me that eyed us with curious interest.
Schuster seemed to be as disoriented as I was, his eyes darting left and right as he chose his directions haphazardly. Finally, though, we arrived at an enormous glass door. Schuster pushed it open, and we entered a giant lobby.
The moment we got there, the woman behind the reception desk looked up.
“Mr. Purlow, Mr. Schuster, can I help you?”
Schuster didn’t say a thing. Instead, he hurried towards the building’s entrance door. He pushed, then threw himself against it, but the door didn’t budge. For a moment, as I looked at the receptionist, I could’ve sworn I saw a smile on her face.
“Mr. Schuster, we’ve been over this before,” she started in a warm, friendly voice. “Unfortunately you’re not allowed to leave the premise until the end of your clinical trial.”
“No, fuck your trial! I’m getting out of here! You’re all insane, this entire thing here’s insane!”
When Schuster beat against the door with all the force he could muster, the receptionist pressed a button. A few moments later two men in suits appeared in the lobby. When Schuster saw them, he freaked out, screamed obscenities at them. The man didn’t waver, walked up to him, and restrained him with next to no effort.
“Mr. Schuster, everything’s all right,” one of them whispered at him while he struggled against their grip.
“It’s just the aftereffects of the new medication. Everything’s all right,” the other chimed in.
As they said this, Schuster was still screaming, still struggling while they dragged him back through the glass door.
“What the hell’s going on here?” I yelled at the receptionist.
“I’m very sorry about that Mr. Purlow. Mr. Schuster is part of a different test group, a test for a new type of medication against certain mental issues. Unfortunately, some test subjects suffered from mild cases of reality distortion and paranoia. I assure you though, it’s normal and no reason for concern.”
“No reason for… what? He was freaking screaming! What the hell are you even-? You know what I’m out of here. It doesn’t even matter if this is some fucked up simulation or if this is real, but I’m fucking out!”
“It’s all standard procedure, Mr. Purlow,” she continued. “Might I remind you of paragraph 5 on form 27? ’Unless there’s the imminent danger of brain damage or curricular arrest, the beta test will continue.’ Now, of course, you’re free to end the test here and now, Mr. Purlow, but we will pay no compensation in that case. Furthermore, as paragraph 11 on form 41 states: ‘Should a person quit the beta test after giving their official consent, ImagiCom will be forced to take legal action, which might include fines of substantial height.”
I stood there and listened as she rambled on about some damned legal matters.
“The hell are you talking about? What’s that about those damned forms? You can’t just-“
But I broke up when the two men that had taken Schuster away appeared again.
“We can assure you, Mr. Purlow, we can indeed.”
With that, the two men got a hold of my arms. I struggled against their grip but soon realized that they were much stronger than me. As they dragged me back towards the hallway, they whispered the same calming words they had at Schuster before. They didn’t even react when I called them out on their bullshit.
I thought they’d bring me back to my room, but they dragged me to the examination room. Kitagawa was already there, waiting for me, smiling.
“Excellent news, Mr. Purlow,” he said with excitement. “We’ve just got confirmation that you’re eligible to take part in our rest.”
Kitagawa’s face transformed, twisted by a sadistic smile.
“The fuck kind of test are you-“
I couldn’t keep talking anymore, because one of the two men pushed a gag into my mouth.
“Well then, why don’t you take Mr. Purlow down to hall B, I think model thirteen should be free at the moment.”
With that, they dragged me outside again, down the hallway. The few office workers who were still around watched the entire ordeal with excited faces.
“You should be honored, Mr. Purlow, you’ll be contributing to the advancement of human society!” Kitagawa rambled on.
I wanted to say something, scream at him, and call him insane, but the damned gag didn’t allow for any of it. All that escaped my mouth were muffled, indistinguishable sounds.
It wasn’t long before Kitagawa pushed open the door to another room, much bigger than any I’d been in before. The moment we entered, the iron smell of blood reached me and I could hear the low moans and muffled screams of the other participants.
They were all strapped to one of the wheel-like contraptions Kitagawa had called their new immersion rig. The moment I saw them, I fought against the grip of the two men once more.
The first participant was twisting and shaking against the restraints of the contraption. A gag covered another’s mouth, but I could see the blood that streamed from the visor, could hear his muffled screams. Yet another’s teeth were grinding against one another before they started biting at his lips and leaving them a tattered, bloody mess. And then, way further down, in the last contraption, I saw Schuster. He was barely recognizable anymore. Blood leaked from his mouth, the visor, and the headphones. His arms and legs looked different, twisted as if the joints had popped and his tendons had snapped. He dangled there almost lifelessly, only twitching once in a while.
Kitagawa’s eyes wandered to the man.
“Well, guess model seventeen is available for a new participant already,” he said with a smile.
I stared at the man wide-eyed.
“Oh, don’t you worry Mr. Purlow, it’s all standard procedure! There’s not a thing you’ve got to worry about!”
As the two men started to strap me to model thirteen I inhaled sharply, mustered up all my strength, and threw myself forward. One restraint snapped open, then another one, and I was free. Adrenaline rushed through my veins and I could somehow avoid both men’s outstretched arms. In an instant, I was out in the hallway.
I heard Kitagawa scream after me and a second later the two men came running after me.
All I could do was run. I pushed on, down one hallway, then another. I ran left, then right, almost crashed into a group of office workers before I changed directions again. Where the hell was I even going? I no idea where the damned lobby was. Everything looked the same, the walls, the room, even the people.
I hurried around another corner and threw myself into the first room I saw. With shaking hands, I took out my phone. I dialed the number for the police, but nothing happened. Fuck, I realized, I didn’t have a signal.
I scanned the room and instantly saw the glass paneling that separated me from the outside world. If nothing else, then… I picked up a chair standing in the room and hurled it against the panel.
The chair crashed against the glass right as my two pursuers stormed into the room. They were still smiling the same smile, still uttering the same reassuring words. I avoided the first man’s grip, threw him to the ground, but right at that moment the second man tackled me. His body crashed into mine and I was thrown backward.
I felt the impact as my body crashed against the glass paneling. Then there was the sound of shattering glass as the surface exploded into a thousand pieces.
For the blink of an eye, I was weightless.
There was no impact, though. Instead, I lay in the soft grass.
I freaked out, jumped up, but felt no pain. There was no damage, no blood, and no glass. When I turned around though, the office building had vanished, too.
It had all been fake, a farce.
It had been nothing but another one of their fucked up simulations.