Simulator

I run the simulator. That’s my job and pretty much my life’s work. I had one job before this one. I used to work at the Pudgy Burger. I made the fries. I hated it because I’d always get burned by the grease, and Randy the manager said I was too slow. I’ve never been very strong or quick of a person, but I have a good mind for things. That’s what my uncle used to say. I told Randy that I wanted a different job but he told me to stop being such a baby and just fry the fucking fries. When I finally quit there, he said it was about time, and called me a weird little pussy.

Running the simulator is a much better job than making the fries. I wasn’t learning anything important in school, so I dropped out and now simulator operator is my full-time profession. One day I hope to be a technician, or even a designer. As of now, my official job consists of standing at the entrance, greeting the guests and taking their tickets. I hate to do it, but sometimes I have to turn people away if they’re too fat or too frail or too pregnant or if they look like they have a condition. Once the simulator is full, I go to the terminal and run the simulation, while making sure no malfunctions occur.

The best perk of the job is not in the job description. It’s getting to see Amy, the girl who works the coffee and hotdog stand across the hall from the simulator. Coffee and hotdogs seem like not a good combination to me, but people still buy lots of them and suck them down while standing around awkwardly because there’s nowhere to sit in this wing of the museum, except in the simulator, but we don’t allow food or drink in there.

Amy is beautiful in a nonchalant sort of way. Her golden hair tumbles down to her shoulders in loose curls and she’s always smiling, although I think that’s part of her job. Sometimes when it’s really busy over there, we’ll make eye contact for a second and she’ll roll her eyes at the fat guy eating a footlong and I’ll pretend to be him, puffing out my cheeks and pantomiming shoving weiners down my gullet. She’ll laugh. Then she’ll give me a different smile, one that’s also half a sigh. Those are the moments I live for. It’s like a little glimpse of how we really are.

You might be thinking that the step up from Pudgy Burger fry guy to simulator operator is a big jump career-wise, and you’d be right to think so, but it didn’t come about without a lot of hard work on my part. The way I came to run the simulator was my uncle used to work at the museum. He was the night time janitor. Sometimes he’d take me with him and we’d look at the exhibits after they closed. We’d sneak around, laughing and pretending to be shadows, and it felt like we were the only people alive anywhere, like it was all for us.

When we came and went we’d always pass by the simulator room. I could just barely see it, a glimpse of this incredible object, this sleek and futuristic chrome pod. It shone like alien technology beyond the security gate. Every time we’d pass, I could feel myself drawn to it.  I knew that it was something rare and powerful, that if I could just get in there, it could take me anywhere I wanted to go.

Then, on my fifteenth birthday, my uncle said he had a surprise. He took me to the museum and pulled out a key. He said it was the simulator guy’s key, or actually a copy of it. He said not to ask him how he got it. We went to the simulator room and he gave me the key and told me to figure out how to work the damn thing while he got drunk.

It took me a little while, but I got it eventually. All night me and my drunk uncle took turns, one of us on the controls and the other sitting in the little pod, pitching and rocking on the hydraulics as we hurtled past asteroids spinning lazily in orbit. We flew through a lush jungle, following the curves of a river before sailing out over the falls into a mist of rainbows. We dove down to a tropical reef teeming with bright fish, then rode a creaking wooden roller-coaster above a pier crowded with women in bonnets and men in pinstripe suits, then drove in a rally car race up and down a mountainside, then did a fly-by of a volcano spewing lava and thick ash, on and on until we’d both done all of the simulations they had.

We snuck out of the museum early the next morning in the greyish light, feeling giddy and free. My uncle got sick then in the parking lot, but he was laughing the whole time. After that I was hooked. I still worked at the Pudgy Burger then, but all I could think about was the simulator. I burned myself even more on the grease because my mind was elsewhere.

I kept the key. I went on the internet at the library and I read all about simulators–how they were originally built to train fighter pilots, how before they had computer graphics they had a tv screen hooked up to a camera that flew on wires above a massive miniaturized landscape. I found copies of simulator manuals and studied them endlessly, then poured over lists of all the simulations currently released and watched previews for new ones in development.

Every now and then I’d get a chance to go to the museum at night to practice running simulations. After almost two years, I knew everything there was to know about the design, operation, upkeep and repair of simulator rides. Then I got a lucky break. My uncle told me that the simulator guy at the museum had gotten a job at Gibson, the simulator company, doing design work. There would be a job opening.

My uncle got me an interview with Greg, the manager of museum attractions. I wowed Greg with my enthusiasm and knowledge of the simulator, and he said I was by far the most qualified candidate for the job. Right after that I went down to the Pudgy Burger and told them I quit. They were in the middle of a big rush and Randy was sweaty and mad and that’s when he called me a weird little pussy, but I didn’t care. It was the best day of my life. Then they put in the hotdog and coffee stand and Amy started working there and that became the best day of my life.

 

It’s been almost another year since then and I’ve been hard at work. Greg and the people at the museum don’t know it, but I’ve been writing my own simulations and making modifications to the simulator in my spare time. The museum has all kinds of equipment in the facilities shop that I use after hours. One of my first modifications was making a laptop that could control the simulation from the inside. That way I could test out my works-in-progress without having someone else there with me.

Once I got that working, I started making my own simulations and putting them into the rotation for guests at the museum. Whenever I finish one, I just tell Greg that it’s a new release from Gibson and he doesn’t ask questions. I keep metrics on the most popular simulations, and mine are all at the top. In my first original simulation, you cruise through an alien city floating in orbit around a blue-green gas giant, then descend into the planet’s roiling surface. I have another one where you’re a sound wave vibrating down the string of an electric guitar, transformed to a signal in the pickup and then slung through the cable and up into the amplifier, where you become a sound wave once again, emanating out over a screaming audience.

The one I’m most proud of is a trip through the human body as a tiny particle, inhaled and diffused into the blooming alveoli. You bubble up through the blood plasma into the left ventricle of the heart and then you get pumped into the brain. When you get there you see a glowing firmament of neurons, firing like shooting stars that don’t fade but cling to one another and stick, weaving this intricate web of thoughts. I had to figure out how to get all the organ textures to look realistic and not too gross. It took some serious imagination and technical skill on my part.

You might be wondering why I don’t just come out and reveal that I’m the author of all these popular simulations and take credit for the work that I’ve done. I sometimes wish I could, but I don’t want anybody to look too closely at the simulator and discover the newer modifications I’ve made. I haven’t tested them out yet, but I think I’m on the cusp of something really great. Something potentially life or even world-altering.

I’m going to hook my brain up to the simulator. I’ve just received the new deep electroencephalographic helmet that I ordered online. It reads brainwaves way more precisely than anything ever before, down to the individual neurons firing. I’ve also been writing software that will theoretically render my thoughts in real time on the screen and move the simulator accordingly. It’s all been pretty difficult since there’s no precedent for this kind of thing, so I don’t have any points of reference to go on. I’ve been mostly winging it and I have no idea if it’ll work, but you have to start somewhere, right?

 

Anyways, today is the day that I’m going to give it a shot. I have the helmet with me and a thumb drive with my rendering software on it. I’m planning on sticking around until everyone’s left the museum before testing it out. Then I get a surprise. Amy walks over after she’s done closing up the coffee and hotdog stand. I get a little nervous but I try to play it cool.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” I say back.

“God, some days, I’m just like, people. Ugh. You know?”

“Yeah” I say. “Yeah, they were really putting down the dogs today. And the coffee.”

“Story of my fucking life,” she says. She points to the simulator. “I’ve never ridden that thing before. Is it cool?”

“Yeah, it’s really cool,” I say. I try not to sound too excited. This could have the potential to shatter all precedents for best day ever, hands down, but I have to play it right. “I mean, it’s not for everybody. Like if you’re too frail or too fat or if you have a condition. Or if you’re pregnant.”

“I’m not pregnant,” she says, and gives me a look.

“Uh, good,” I say. “Do you wanna check it out?”

“Yeah,” she says. “It sounds fun.”

“Right this way, madam,” I say, bowing and gesturing to the door. Amy laughs.

“You’re weird,” she says. Fuck, I think, or maybe not? It’s too soon to tell, but I’m not off to a great start. I haven’t powered anything down because I was planning on staying anyways, so I grab the inner-control computer and we both climb into the pod. I hit the button and the door closes and for a moment we’re in darkness. Then I boot up the computer and a cool blue-white ripples across the inner screen. Amy’s eyes widen.

“Wow,” she says.

“Just wait,” I say. I play her a few of the standards from the Gibson catalogue, the rainforest and the tropical reef and the volcano, and she likes them a lot, so I decide why not? I put on the electric guitar soundwave one and she looks at me afterwards.

“That was awesome!” she says. “I’d never thought about visualizing sound like that.”

This is going better than I could have ever imagined. I show her the rest of my simulations, but I save the trip through the body for last. When we finally squirt into the brain and the synapses begin to fire all around us, she takes an audible breath in. I pause the simulation right before it ends, so we’re sitting there under a luminous expanse of neurons, frozen in place.

“Wow,” she says again. “Just, wow. I never knew people’s brains were so, I dunno, so beautiful. I thought they were just like, greyish-pink goo. Like a ball of old mashed up hotdog meat or something. Not like this…”

“Some of the people you serve look like they might have hotdogs for brains,” I say. She laughs.

“I know, right?” she says. “But the thing is, they don’t. Even the fattest, rudest, meanest most disgusting hotdog pounding-est people look like this on the inside, in their heads. It’s easy to forget that.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” I say

“I try to keep that in mind when I get really bummed out about things. It’s crazy, how every person is their own incredible little machine with, like, all these amazingly intricate parts that most people don’t even know about, like we could all just come apart at any second, but somehow, we don’t.”

“That’s a nice way to think about it,” I say.

“I guess,” she says. “But then when I think about that I just think, fuck, why am I wasting my life working at a hotdog and coffee stand? Spending all day heating up processed meat tubes and sugary liquid drugs. And then I think, well, it’s just because I need the money for rent and student loans and bullshit to give to dumb companies that are busy scheming to fuck the whole world over, and nobody pays people to make art anymore.” I don’t know what to say to that, so I just look at her and nod.

“I studied to be a painter and that’s all I ever wanted to do but now I have to find time to fit it in the cracks around this stupid boring job and all the other shit. I’ve still never sold a single painting. I don’t know how. It’s like, they taught me how to look at things and move the brush, but nobody ever told me how to make it my life. I just get so frustrated, I don’t even know. I’m sorry. Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine,” I say. “I feel that way sometimes too. I’d buy one of your paintings.”

“You haven’t even seen them,” she says.

“What do you paint?” I ask.

“Portraits, mostly,” she says. “I’m sort of fascinated by people’s faces.”

“I bet they’re good,” I say. “I mean, if you really care about things, you’ll make them good. You know?”

“Yeah,” she says. “I try. I wonder who makes these simulations though. That would be a really cool job.”

“Well actually, I do. Some of them,” I say. “I made those last few I just showed you.” She looks at me incredulously.

“I thought you just took the tickets,” she says.

“Well, I do that too,” I say. “But I also design simulations for fun in my spare time.”

“For real?” she says. “I didn’t see your name in any credits or anything.”

“Yeah, It’s kind of my little secret,” I say. “Check this out though.” I rewind us out of the brain, back down into the the left ventricle of the heart, and pause there. “Look.” I point to a spot right near the mouth of the aorta, where I’ve signed my name in the muscle fibers.

“That’s awesome!” she says. “Wow, I kinda totally misjudged you.”

“I could put your name in here too,” I say. “It wouldn’t be hard.”

“I’d like that,” she says. “That would be really sweet. But why don’t you tell anybody that you made these? Yours were all the best ones.”

“Well I’m glad you liked them,” I say. “I don’t know, I guess I just don’t want all the attention.”

“Why not? Don’t you want recognition for your work?” she says.

“I mean, yeah,” I say. “But I’m working on this new thing now and I don’t want people to see it before it’s done.”

“What is it?” she asks.

“Hold on,” I say. I pull out the electroencephalographic helmet from where I have it stashed under my seat. “Here it is,” I say. “At least, this is part of it.”

“What is it? It looks intense,” she says.

“It’s an electroencephalographic helmet,” I say. “It can read your brainwaves.”

“Holy shit,” she says. “So you’re gonna, like, power this thing with your mind?”

“Hopefully,” I say. “I haven’t tested it yet. I actually was about to before you came over.”

“We should do it,” she says, her eyes bright. “Let’s test it out.”

“Ok,” I say. “Yeah, ok, just let me set it up.” I hook up the helmet to my computer and begin loading my rendering software.

“I’m not totally sure what’s going to happen with this, so I’d better go first,” I say. “I don’t want anything bad to happen to you.”

“Ok,” she says. “But I want to try it after.” Everything is hooked up and ready to go, and I hold the helmet in my hands. It looks like a shiny black laurel wreath, only instead of leaves it has little arms branching off that end in electrodes suspended just above the skull, over the various lobes and regions of the brain. I put the thing on and feel a slight hum and static tingle running across my scalp.

“Here goes nothing,” I say, and flip the switch. At first nothing happens. We’re surrounded by the flat blackness, but as I peer into it, it starts to swirl and change, seeming to pulsate gently wherever I look. Then faint lights start to appear at the edges of my vision and the hydraulics begin to move underneath us, the pod rising and falling in time with my breath.

At first the lights look a little bit like the neurons in my simulated brain, but as they start to weave together they begin to take on a new form, something that looks vaguely organic, though I can’t tell what it is yet.

“Wow,” whispers Amy. In the half-dark she reaches out and takes my hand in hers. When she does, there’s a blossom of red on the screen and my heart starts beating quicker, and I realize that its sound is amplified by the speakers. The simulator begins to rock back and forth in a more deliberate motion and there are more little blossoms that spread out like drops of watercolor on blotting paper. As the drops expand they take on a sort of fractal quality, like little undulating mandelbrot sets that keep growing out of themselves, the patterns on the edges becoming ever more complex and tiny.

Amy squeezes my hand and I look at her under the glimmering lights and she’s so beautiful and I feel a great something welling up in my chest. The lights start flashing out of control and the simulator rocks back and forth and I feel a surge across my scalp. My ears start to ring with the sound of feedback. As my vision goes dark, the lights begin to coalesce into what looks like a human form.

 

I wake up to Amy screaming and shaking me. As I open my eyes, relief flashes across her face, but it hardens into a mask of hysterical anger.

“What happened?” I ask. “Are you ok?”

“You tell me what the fuck happened! You’re supposed to be the simulator genius! You fucking weirdo!”

She’s got her back against the wall and I’m on the floor and she looks down at me like I’m some dark, pitiful thing.

“I don’t know,” I say, “I’m sorry. What did you see?”

“I thought it came from your mind, you sick fuck!” she snarls. “Don’t pretend like you don’t know what I saw.”

“I blacked out!” I say. “I don’t know. I’ve never used this thing before.”

“Yeah, bullshit,” she says. “Let me out of here.”

“Wait,” I say. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what would happen.”

“Let me out of here, now!” she almost screams. I press the button to open the door.

“What did you see?” I ask again, but it’s too late. She’s gone. Fuck, I think. I had something. We had something. It was working, and then I had to go and blow it as hard as I could have possibly blown it. Now I’m not thinking will I maybe get Amy to go out with me. Now I’m thinking will Amy even come back to work tomorrow? Will she tell Greg about what I’ve done and get me fired and/or arrested for making unsafe and untested modifications to the simulator and letting people ride in it? Will she file some sort of lawsuit against me because of the fucked up things she saw inside of my brain? Will this one mistake ruin my whole life?

 

I have to destroy the evidence. I pull the helmet off my head and go out to the computer and delete from it all traces of my mental rendering program and shut everything down. Then I take the helmet and the thumb drive and I run out of the museum and around to the back, where a paved bike path runs along next to the river. I  throw the helmet as far as I can out into the water. I smash the thumb drive with a rock and I start to cry and beat myself on the head with clenched fists.

I had always thought that if I could just show somebody what was in there…I thought…god, I don’t know what I thought would happen, but everything came out different and wrong. Whatever she saw, that couldn’t have been me.  But maybe it was. Maybe my mind isn’t good at all. How can I know? I lean against the railing, staring at the water’s inky surface, willing it to reveal something to me, but all it does is ripple out there in the darkness.


Henry Whittier-Ferguson