by Todd Sullivan
Gerald’s wife lay sprawled on the bed, a packer of sleeping pills on the nightstand next to her. He picked up the orange cylinder and read the label. She’d bought the popular brand, LoGof, guaranteed to end a life peacefully. Pharmacies advertised LoGof throughout the silent city, the slogan, “Escape into the real you”, written beneath smiling faces of families. His wife must have swallowed dozens of the tablets and died while she slept beside him.
Caressing her cheek one last time, he called the 24-hour crematorium. When the technicians arrived, they wrapped her body in a burial shroud and informed him that a Counselor would be along soon.
In no mood for that conversation, Gerald grabbed his basketball and stepped outside. In the distance, orbital antennas spraying out purple micro-particles rose seventy miles into the air to pierce the atmosphere. The Counselors had originally built them to amplify the extra-planetary telescopes launched five years ago by private enterprises. Only recently had the antennas started rotating on their axises and emitting a dust that was slowly coating the world.
Gerald reached the court, stretched, and dribbled the ball. Purple dust puffed up around his sneakers as he went in for a lay up, all net. He chased after the ball, but the sudden exertion sent him into a coughing fit. For moments, he simply hunched over trying to catch his breath.
When the spasm passed, he turned back to the free throw line. Across the street, he saw a Counselor making its way to him. Tall and thin with a golden exterior, the Counselor moved on spindly tentacles that unfolded out from its lower half. It stepped into the center of the court and began to walk in a tight circle. The Counselors never stood still, rotating much like the antennas towering above the earth.
“Do you enjoy playing this game by yourself?” Its gentle voice emanated from no discernible source, its melodic tone closer to singing than speaking. The innocuous question brought tears to Gerald’s eyes that he immediately blinked away.
He shot the ball, and it thudded against the backboard and bounced away. Before he could reach it, a tendril extended from the golden body and wrapped around the ball. Gerald considered leaving, but if he went back home, there would probably be another Counselor waiting to engage him in a conversation he had no desire in having.
Gerald held out his hands. “Can I get my ball back?”
The Counselor threw it to him. Gerald caught it, dribbled in the fine carpet of dust, and shot another brick. He already knew what the Counselor wanted to say. He’d had this discussion many times, though he never knew if it was with the same Counselor, or with a different one, since they all appeared the same to him.
“Why do you not want to join your wife and family?”
Gerald swallowed a lump that formed in his throat. “I’m not going to kill myself.”
“They are not dead. As we have explained to you, this reality is not real.”
Gerald shot the ball. It ricocheted off the rim, and he ran after it, his lungs burning from the purple dust. “It certainly feels real.”
“You cannot trust your senses. What you see is a construct. The avatar of your body is just a manifestation, not your true embodiment.”
Gerald had heard this before. When cosmologists discovered structures emitting infrared fourteen million light-years away, Counselors landed on Earth shortly afterwards. Meeting the different heads of state from around the world, they explained to the top scientists of the most powerful nations that what those were actually data streams giving shape to a cosmos that human consciousness had become trapped in.
“So I actually look like you, right?” Gerald asked.
“My native appearance, yes. You and I are the same species, but Counselors manifested in this form because we thought it would help you believe us.” The Counselor approached Gerald, who dribbled away, keeping his distance. “The glitch to this matrix keeps your mind imprisoned. The only way to break the cycle is to kill yourself, for a non-forced death will recycle your mind back through this system to take up a new role in the simulation.”
Gerald pointed to the antennas shooting out purple micro-particles. “So if this reality isn’t real, what are those structures doing? And why are there more Counselors appearing even as there are less humans that need convincing to commit suicide?”
“What you perceive as antennas are simply key-commands meant to reconfigure the malfunction of this reality. This dust is a byproduct of mathematical computations in higher dimensions of the program. If you do not detach from this reality, your consciousness will be overwritten, and your mind will be lost. There is little time left.”
Gerald’s parents had taken their lives in the first wave of suicides. He had managed to convince his wife to hold off until today. She had now joined billions of other humans who had killed themselves over the last five years.
The Counselors had argued their case well, convincing physicists that reality was a simulation. Scientists convinced the world’s governments, who eventually encouraged their citizens to disconnect from their artificial lives. As the population dwindled, a terrifying possibility had formed in Gerald’s mind. What if the Counselors were lying? What if they wanted Earth, and after studying humans, had figured out a way to obtain it without firing a single shot.
When you’re dealing with a technologically inferior mind, convincing them of self-destruction could be a perfect bloodless coup of the native species.
Gerald laid up the ball. He wasn’t alone in his suspicions, and he wasn’t going to kill himself. If enough humans continued to resist the Counselors’ suggestion, maybe they could discover the truth and defeat this most quiet of alien invasions.
“If it’s all the same,” Gerald told the Counselor, “I think I’ll play this virtual game a little while longer.”
Todd Sullivan currently lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he teaches English as a Second Language. He has had more than two dozen short stories, poems, essays, and novelettes published across five countries. He currently has two book series through indie publishers in America. He writes for a Taipei web and play series that focuses upon black and African narratives. He founded the online magazine, Samjoko, in 2021, and hosts a YouTube Channel that interviews writers across the publishing spectrum.
Words don’t die once uttered, but float in the wind, like seeds, with the power to change landscapes.