The deletion notice hung over the planet Filster. Large white numbers on a red background flicked over, counting down. There were just over two hours left, real time. Knowing it was sometime around ten o’clock, Adam figured the official time of deletion had been slated for midnight. End of the day. End of all days for the people of Filster.
He had a sudden urge to log out and tell Samualson, to let him know that this was the reason for the crowds. The remote access groups would be going nuts as well. It would be a free-for-all, grabbing what data they could, performing wild experiments that would break the suspension of disbelief for the planet’s inhabitants. Adam had watched from a distance once while meteors rained down on a planet with some decent playwrights. He hadn’t even time to finish memorizing a work he’d been in the middle of, one with quite a bit of potential. That play took up half a notebook in his apartment; he kept planning on finishing it himself one day.
He drilled into the alert message to see the reason for the deletion. It made no sense to log off and tell Samualson. He might see for himself, or he’d find out later. No point in allowing the desperation to show.
The desperation. Adam felt numb as the truth of it began to set in. Belatrix would not exist in two hours. She’d be gone forever. A loved one had been diagnosed with something terminal and sudden. And he was reading the report:
With the advent of their own simmed worlds, planet Filster has placed undue stress on our server farms. Planetology research will be suspended and resumed as the world re-accretes around the star Beatrice Bondeamu Gilbert III, as per the Astronomy department. Sociological studies will be terminated forthwith. Deletion is slated for midnight, February 21st, 2022.
Adam sped past the message, absorbing it numbly as he went. Why did they have to delete the entire planet? Why not destroy the server farms? Why not just delete those? They can rebuild a planet, but not the people. The people would be different. Their writing would be different. Their food and names would be different.
He didn’t want different.
He slid into his avatar with the shiver of numbness turning to sensation. The clouds of Filster parted, revealing the dark interior of the bookstore bathroom. Adam fumbled for the light, then the doorknob. They were in the same place as before, but it took him a moment. He had become uncentered from himself. As he stepped out into the smell of fresh pulp and horseshit tea, the floor itself seemed closer than it should be. His mind was spinning as the inevitable fully sank in: his trysts were over. His love lost. He wouldn’t have to think of anything to tell his mother. He wouldn’t have to worry about his father spinning in his grave, or his sister finding out and being humiliated for him. He didn’t have to lie to Amanda or Samualson. He didn’t have to burn with shame under the unknowing glare of his students.
He weaved through the stacks of books, dizzy with all the implications and outcomes. He wanted none of it. Adam would gladly lie for another year, another month, another week, just one more day. At least a day to process it. A day to sit in the park with her and break the news, maybe even let her think he was crazy. There was so much of her world she had never seen, places Adam had flown over, invisible, and wanted to take her. He hurried down the line of registers, looking for her. She wasn’t there. Where were the customers? There was a commotion outside. Adam looked past the bestsellers, through the glass, and saw that the cars were at a standstill. Horns blared in the distance. Someone was screaming, the voice muted. Adam whirled around and realized he was the only one in the store. Him and a single cashier, who was emptying the register and stuffing his pants. Adam didn’t recognize him; he was pretty sure he didn’t work there.
“Where is everyone?” Adam asked the man.
“Fuck off! These are mine.”
The man moved to another register and began pounding buttons. Fans of colorful bills flopped above his belt. A car roared outside as it pulled up on the sidewalk and rumbled by, scattering screaming pedestrians. Adam watched it squeal out of sight, then pushed the glass doors open and hurried out.
“There’s another one!” someone screamed. The crowd moved as one, following an angled arm, a pointing finger. Eyes were shielded against the midday glare. Adam turned and looked up as well. A massive flying saucer rumbled overhead, ridiculous lights splaying out of it. The thunder of explosions rumbled in the distance, sending shivers of panic through the crowd. Adam couldn’t believe it. Of all the sociological experiments to level on the Eastern continent, reaction to an alien invasion had to be the dumbest he could think of. He pushed his way through the crowd toward Belatrix’s apartment, thankful they hadn’t picked a flood or meteor impact. He spotted a few other researchers in the crowd, the remote access icons blinking visibly—to Adam at least—above their heads. One sported University of Miami colors, another was a generic deep red that could’ve been from dozens of schools. They seemed enraptured by the panicked crush of people. Adam made sure they weren’t looking and broke all rules by teleporting his avatar out of the streets. He appeared above Filster for just a moment, then zipped to the apartment hallway, saving himself the walk. An elderly couple was staggering down the hall, clutching to one another. They gasped at the sudden presence of Adam, materializing out of nowhere. He ignored them and pounded on the door.
“Bela, open up.”
He heard something squeak inside the room, like a tight drawer being pushed shut.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me. Open up.”
The knob jumped, and the door flew open. Belatrix stood there, hair veiling her face in loose wisps, her eyes wide.
“How did you get here so fast?”
Adam moved inside the apartment, his hands on her shoulders. She was trembling.
“I hurried right over.”
“I just talked to you. You were at work.”
Adam wasn’t sure what his avatar had been doing. He rarely was.
“I was on my way. You called my portable, remember?”
She scrunched up her face, swiped the hair off her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. “I must be confused. It’s— The world has gone nuts. What are we going to do?” She looked toward the windows. Adam noticed the blinds had been drawn. Why was he lying to her about how he got to her apartment? What good did it do? Didn’t he come there planning on telling her the truth? What good would that do? Was it better for her to go without knowing, to die thinking that she—?
Die. Why did he keep thinking about it like that? Deleted. She didn’t exist. None of this was real.
“Honey? Are you okay?” A hand on his chest, one around his waist. Adam realized he probably looked worse than she did. What was really about to happen to her planet was far more sinister, permanent, and real than anything she could dread from the flying saucers.
“I have to tell you something.”
There was an explosion outside. The windows rattled, then the vibrations could be felt in the floor. The building was swaying. Adam had never been on the ground level of a deletion before. It was terrifying and real. He couldn’t believe how real it felt. Raw terror coursed up through him as he lost his center. He had a brief pang of doubt that this world was real and that he was about to die. Perhaps his life at the university was some sort of delusion—
Belatrix was screaming, her hands pressed to her cheeks. More rumbles of destruction in the distance. Somewhere, avatars floated above it all, soaking up the data. Their bodies sat in a room, a virtual billion light years away, with Adam. He tried to remember that.
“None of this is real!” Adam screamed. The building moved again, or his balance was gone. He wasn’t sure Belatrix heard him over her own screams. This was no way to say goodbye.
Belatrix’s hands fell to her side. She looked around the room, eyes wide, a sudden look of concentration and desperation. “We have to go,” she said. She hurried to her purse, dug around until she came out with her keys. She scanned the room for what else.
“It’s no better anywhere else,” Adam said. “There’s something I have to say.”
Anger flashed across her face. “Not now—” she began.
“None of this is real,” Adam said again. He threw his arms wide and spun in a slow circle, accusing her entire world. “There are no aliens outside. There is no outside. This planet isn’t real.”
Belatrix dug out her phone and started dialing someone. She kept a wary eye on Adam. He realized how pointless and sad all this was. So he disappeared. He logged off, then reinserted himself near the ceiling, teleporting as before. He drifted slowly toward the floor, his arms stretched wide and his knees bent. Belatrix dropped her phone; her jaw hung agape.
“Sweetheart. Listen to me. I need you to know something.” His feet reached the ground. Belatrix hadn’t moved. “This world is a virtual construct. It is an illusion created by my people—”
Her eyes darted toward the windows. Her lips trembled.
“No.” Adam held out a hand toward the chaos outside. “I’m not with them. Those aren’t real either. It’s—” He needed more time to explain. “Did you know your world has started simulating entire other worlds? Have you read about the computer systems that have gone live recently? Where entire planets evolve and thrive?”
Belatrix nodded. A lump rose and fell across her throat.
“This is a world like that.”
She shook her head. Fires crackled like balled up paper outside. Adam could smell smoke.
“I know it’s hard to imagine—” Adam waved at the room. “But all this is a simulation.”
“But you’re real.” Her voice was a squeak.
“I’m real. And I came here because I need you to know that what we have has been the only thing in my life lately that felt real.”
Adam was crying. He didn’t know the simulation could do that. He didn’t know why it wouldn’t be able to, but he was surprised. Belatrix took a step toward him.
“I’m ashamed of this in my world,” he said, sobbing. “I’m living a lie more than you are.”
She reached out and held his arms. Adam wrapped her up. He could taste the salt of his tears on her neck. “I’m so sorry—” he said.
The rumbles outside faded, leaving the wail of many distant screams.
“It’s not fair,” Adam whispered.
“What’s going to happen?”
He squeezed her tightly. “I wish I could save this—” Adam wasn’t sure if he meant the moment, her planet, Belatrix, or just the feeling.
“What happens next?” she asked.
Adam went to kiss her, to feel the soft and warm sensation on his lips, as real as anything in the universe, one final time—
But there was no time.
His avatar logged out as the planet it was visiting ceased to exist.