IMS: Hello, this is IMS, the author of The Program audio series. If you are new to the show, I would like to say welcome! Every episode of The Program is a standalone story, so this is as good a place to start as any. I recommend listening to this episode on headphones. And don’t be intimidated by its duration - as an early reviewer said: “Give it 10 minutes and you won’t even notice the remaining 80.“ If you would like to hear the show without ads, subscribe through Apple Podcasts or support the show on Patreon. The Program comes for us all.
ANNOUNCER: “The goal of every computation is to calculate the result; the purpose of every simulation is for it to run to the end. Sooner or later, we all face the blue screen.” A quote from The Decoder’s Manual, final edition
CHOSEN ONE: The first indisputable manifestation of the Great Administrator was in Babylon in the year 277. Archeological evidence however precedes this event by at least a century, with traces of Admin’s presence preserved in the numerous artefacts left behind the Xia Dynasty. Intangible indications date from even earlier, with legends of Sysadmin’s deeds surviving in the oral tradition of Arabian tribes back when time was still counted in double digits. Whatever the culture, whatever the age, there was one opinion shared across both millennia and meridians, a certainty all of us could plainly see: ours was the best System Administrator that ever was, and ever will be.
[pen scribbling on paper]
CHOSEN TWO: What are you doing?
CHOSEN ONE: Writing.
CHOSEN TWO: Writing what?
CHOSEN ONE: A chronicle.
CHOSEN TWO: Is that a fancy word for a diary?
CHOSEN ONE: No, diaries are about individuals, and this is not about me.
CHOSEN TWO: So what are you writing about then?
CHOSEN ONE: I’m writing about the sim.
CHOSEN TWO: The sim? What, you're gonna write down the chronicle of the world?
CHOSEN ONE: Someone has to.
CHOSEN TWO: Better conserve the cycles.
CHOSEN ONE: I think we’ll have to be more supportive of each other for this to work.
CHOSEN TWO: Hm.
CHOSEN ONE: [scribbling on paper]
CHOSEN TWO: So when do we get into the picture?
CHOSEN ONE: I haven't gotten to that part yet. It's a complex story, it needs to be told chronologically.
CHOSEN TWO: You're just a bad storyteller.
CHOSEN ONE: I can tell you with certainty that I’m one of the best storytellers on the planet.
CHOSEN TWO: I guess that’s technically correct.
CHOSEN ONE: The best kind of correct.
CHOSEN TWO: Hey, maybe I can claim to have the biggest boobs!
CHOSEN ONE: Actually, I might hold that record as well! [laugher]
FERRYMAN: What are you two babbling about?
CHOSEN TWO: Boobs.
FERRYMAN: I’m in favour of them.
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs] It’s not like we’re holding a referendum!
CHOSEN TWO: Do you always say what you think?
FERRYMAN: No, but I always think what I say.
CHOSEN TWO: Well, some things are better left unsaid!
FERRYMAN: I’m waking you both up at 6.
CHOSEN TWO: What a charming fellow.
CHOSEN ONE: I don’t think ferrymen are supposed to be charming.
CHOSEN TWO: Have you noticed his hand?
CHOSEN ONE: You mean the glove?
CHOSEN TWO: Yeah, and how stiff his arm seems.
CHOSEN ONE: I don’t know...
CHOSEN TWO: Well why don’t we ask him? We’re the Chosen Ones, which technically makes us his boss!
CHOSEN ONE: I don’t think it works that way.
CHOSEN TWO: Didn’t you just say that technically correct is the best kind of correct?
CHOSEN ONE: And didn’t you just say some things are better left unsaid?
CHOSEN TWO: [sighs]
CHOSEN ONE: Most pundits agree it was around 1370 that the issue became unquestionable. For it was just a few months prior that Sysadmin introduced a wonderful device that could capture still images. I’ve never seen one in person, but I read in the books that it was based on the natural principle of camera obscura, exposing a thin sheet of metal coated with an emulsion to rays of light reflected through a concave lens. Images captured like this were extremely true to life, and unlike paintings and drawings, they offered no room for interpretation. Which is why some of the images that started circulating were so... Disturbing.
Like an image of a house in Mexico suspended in mid air.
Or one from Kenya depicting an impossibly large duck, roughly the size of a horse.
Or an image of a woman in India caught disappearing in the middle of a street.
At first, these and similar incidents were dismissed as defects in the exposition process, or less charitably as deliberate hoaxes. It took a case in Germany for the wider public to take notice; either because Germans were regarded as folk less likely to screw around, or because this time it was not only a woman that disappeared in the street, but the street itself.
CHOSEN TWO: Why are you putting on that cool voice?
CHOSEN ONE: It’s a chronicle, it needs to sound dignified.
CHOSEN TWO: Aha.
FERRYMAN: Come on, up with a jump! We didn’t gather here to play board games! You’re forgetting there’s a hard deadline we’re operating under!
CHOSEN TWO: Well it’s just… It’s just…
FERRYMAN: ...What seems to be the problem?
CHOSEN ONE: I haven’t been out of the house in over two years…
FERRYMAN: Oh plastic. You?
CHOSEN ONE: One… Two… Four… Four! Yeah. If we’re not counting arriving here.
FERRYMAN: [sighs] We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel of these Chosen Ones, aren’t we..? Okay, listen carefully, I’m gonna say this only once. Not because I don’t want to repeat myself, but because if something goes wrong out there, there won’t be a chance for me to repeat myself! ...So, rule number 1 - If I’m quiet, you’re quiet. Absolutely no talking! Or any other sounds - coughing, snoring, sneezing, screaming...
CHOSEN ONE: Do people scream, I mean usually?
FERRYMAN: No - they usually don’t have time to do that! ...Okay, rule number 2. [sound of a cane tapping] You hear this? Where I go, you follow! Just listen to the sound of my cane and do not deviate from the path in the slightest, got it?
CHOSEN TWO: So if we follow you and keep our mouths shut, things are gonna be okay?
FERRYMAN: Sure, with me you get a lifetime warranty.
CHOSEN TWO: We do?
FERRYMAN: Oh yeah - I promise to keep you alive until the end of your life! [cackles] My dear wallabies, you have to understand - out there, there are no guarantees… It’s like a boardgame: you can do everything right and still lose. Alright, time to go!
[opening of a hatch]
CHOSEN TWO: It’s just a street… It’s just a street… It’s just a street…
CHOSEN ONE: Hendrikstrasse wasn't really a street - technically speaking it was a cul-de-sac in a nondescript German town of Rösrath. It was there that on November 5th 1375 a patch of land disappeared, as if it were removed with a giant scalpel and then stitched together. Contained in the missing area were 19 houses with 47 inhabitants, 41 of which were present in their homes at the time of the incident. Fortunately - if the word “fortune” can be invoked in relation to this event - it was a school day, so six children with the Hendrikstrasse residence escaped the fate of their parents and older siblings - that of getting erased.
[three pairs of footsteps and a cane tapping]
CHOSEN TWO: May I say something?
FERRYMAN: Rule number 1!
CHOSEN TWO: But I need to walk to that wall over there...
FERRYMAN: Rule number 2!
CHOSEN TWO: But I need to do both number 1 and number 2!
[tapping of cane stops]
FERRYMAN: [sighs] Alright... But take the cane with you, y’know, just in case.
CHOSEN TWO: So it could detect glitches?
FERRYMAN: Yeah. But still, don’t let your guard down - some glitches are only set off by organic matter. Pity there are no animals left, a pig on a leash in front would make a much better detection system...
CHOSEN ONE: Oh man, that’s cruel…
FERRYMAN: I mean it’s not like pigs had a good time while they were around. If you’re gonna write down the history of the world, at least get your facts straight!
CHOSEN TWO: I’m sorry to interrupt, but I really need to go.
FERRYMAN: Fine, fine, fine, fine, here’s the cane. And also, don’t go behind that wall but behind that tree.
CHOSEN TWO: Is it because it’s less likely there are any glitches there?
FERRYMAN: No, it’s because it’s better for the tree.
[single pair of footsteps and a tapping cane moving away]
CHOSEN ONE: Since we can talk now, I have to ask… Who made all these statues around us?
FERRYMAN: What statues?
CHOSEN ONE: Like that one there... Or here… Here’s one right next to the road!
FERRYMAN: Oh. That. Those are not statues.
CHOSEN ONE: What do you mean?
FERRYMAN: Those are poor bastards who walked this road before us and had the misfortune to encounter a Medusa.
CHOSEN ONE: These are… Real people… Who turned to stone..?
FERRYMAN: Yup, Medusa is the popular name for the petrification glitch. Well, maybe “popular” is not the best word. None of the glitches are really popular…
CHOSEN ONE: Why are they naked?
FERRYMAN: It’s their flesh that turned into stone, not their clothes! Their clothes probably got washed away by the elements - I mean, who knows how long they’ve been out here like this…
CHOSEN ONE: What a horrible way to die...
FERRYMAN: Actually there are worse materials to be turned into. At least flesh transforming into stone is a quick way to go. Unlike having your bones turn into glass, or your blood into quicksilver...
CHOSEN ONE: Y’know, I was thinking… Your other Chosen Ones…
FERRYMAN: What about them?
CHOSEN ONE: Did they ever make it to the… To the Terminal?
FERRYMAN: They did. It’s just that none of them made it inside…
[sound of footsteps and cane approaching]
CHOSEN TWO: Hey guys, we can go. Hey guys, we can go. Hey guys, we can go. [continued in the background]
FERRYMAN: Ah, plastic.
CHOSEN ONE: What’s happening?!
FERRYMAN: She got stuck in a loop. Don’t worry, usually only lasts a minute or so... Though I once got stuck in a loop for over an hour! It’s like getting stuck on a merry-go-around. Not fun.
CHOSEN ONE: Is she -- is she aware she’s in a loop?
FERRYMAN: Oh definitely. But there’s nothing she can do about it. And neither can we - interrupting a loop can be dangerous. It’s better to just wait for the process to resolve.
CHOSEN TWO: … Hey guys, we can go. Hey guys, we can go. Hey guys, we can go. Hey guys, we can go. BLOODY SHITBALLS, WHAT WAS THAT?!
FERRYMAN: A loop. Don’t worry, it’s over now.
CHOSEN TWO: Don’t worry?! Fuck, that was terrifying!
FERRYMAN: Trust me, I don’t use the words “don’t worry” gratuitously. Loops are annoying, but they’re mostly harmless. Besides, it could have been much worse.
CHOSEN TWO: It could?
FERRYMAN: Yeah, you could have got stuck in a loop while you were doing your business behind the tree.
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs]
CHOSEN TWO: Gross!!!
FERRYMAN: My cane, please.
CHOSEN TWO: Here you go.
FERRYMAN: Hope you used hand sanitizer.
CHOSEN TWO: Always!
FERRYMAN: Liar. ...Okay capybaras, let us continue.
CHOSEN TWO: ...By the way, what are all these statutes?
FERRYMAN: RULE NUMBER 1!
CHOSEN ONE: The Hendrikstrasse incident provoked an immediate reaction. It is estimated that over two billion messages got dispatched to the Admin in the first 24 hours alone - some formal in tone, focused on facts and potential resolutions; others emotional, emphasizing the shock and distress the event caused. Regardless of the approach, they all had exactly the same effect, which is to say - none, as all messages addressed to The System Administrator returned unread. And for the first time in history, people’s cries were met with silence.
[three pairs of footsteps and heaving]
CHOSEN TWO: May I say something?
FERRYMAN: Rule number 1.
CHOSEN TWO: But we’ve been walking for hours!
FERRYMAN: Rule number 2.
CHOSEN TWO: Fuck, am I stuck in a loop again?
CHOSEN ONE: Well if you are I’m stuck right with you.
FERRYMAN: No one’s stuck in a loop, you marmosets!
CHOSEN TWO: [heaves] Ferryman, I haven’t left the house in two years - I need rest!
FERRYMAN: To rest is to rust!
CHOSEN TWO: But there’s no point in surviving glitches if we die of exhaustion!
FERRYMAN: Yeah, regarding survival - we need to get to the safehouse before dark if we want to do that.
CHOSEN TWO: Please, I can’t carry this weight any longer!
FERRYMAN: [annoyed] Here, gimme your backpack.
CHOSEN TWO: That’s okay, I’ll manage…
FERRYMAN: Don’t give me that equal lefts crap! Gimme your backpack! I’ll take it, you’ll be faster, we both win!
CHOSEN TWO: Okay.
FERRYMAN: [heaves] Fucking fuckknuckles, this is heavy!
CHOSEN TWO: Told ya.
FERRYMAN: What are you carrying, your bowling ball collection?
CHOSEN TWO: Actually, it’s my pet rocks.
CHOSEN ONE: Sorry to break up the bickering, but what happened to rule number 1? Aren’t we in danger of setting off any glitches if we talk?
FERRYMAN: [sighs] No. Actually, none of the glitches are triggered by sound. Rule number 1 is only because I don’t feel like talking.
CHOSEN ONE: [chuckles] I like your cruise, man.
CHOSEN TWO: Yeah, cruise of a dickhead!
FERRYMAN: Listen you pissing pair of parakeets! I’m not doing this to get style points! You think out here, being a nice person will save you? You think that bad things don’t happen to good people?
CHOSEN TWO: Like what happened with your arm?
FERRYMAN: What about my arm?
CHOSEN TWO: Well, we did notice the glove... And how you seem to hold your arm close to your body at all times…
FERRYMAN: Oh, that. I’m glad you asked.
CHOSEN TWO: So, what’s the deal?
FERRYMAN: I said I’m glad you asked - I didn’t say I’d gladly answer! [cackles]
CHOSEN TWO: Well I’ll gladly answer your question then: yes, I’m aware bad things happen to good people. That’s kinda the story of our times, isn’t it? Either case, the facts ain’t gonna change - the only thing we can do is put a positive spin on it.
FERRYMAN: Yeah yeah yeah, you mean like we do with this whole System Administrator crap..?
CHOSEN ONE: What?
FERRYMAN: Flummoxed flamingos, don’t you get it? What we call “the Admin” ain’t nothing but a symbolic construct!
CHOSEN TWO: Wait… You’re not saying that… That the System Administrator is made up?!
FERRYMAN: What I’m saying is that the Admin stories are almost 400 years old - how the fuck do we know what’s real and what’s not?
CHOSEN TWO: Well that’s just swell, the last ferryman left is having an existential crisis... I can't believe what I'm hearing!
CHOSEN ONE: So who made the sim, if She’s not real?
FERRYMAN: What difference does it make? It’s not like the undertaking’s gonna get an A+ at the science fair! In case you haven’t noticed, things haven’t exactly been peaches and cream for a while now!
CHOSEN ONE: But everything happens for a reason! Just because we don’t understand it, doesn’t mean there’s no plan!
CHOSEN TWO: Listen, I’ll be the first one to admit that some of Admin’s behaviour in the last four centuries or so has been... Questionable. But if you don’t believe Admin is real, then why are you even helping us get to the Terminal?
FERRYMAN: Quiet! Quiet… Do you hear that?
CHOSEN TWO: Hear what?
CHOSEN ONE: Now that you mention it, everything’s completely silent.
FERRYMAN: Oh plastic.
[short shrill sound of a glitch]
CHOSEN TWO: Now I definitely heard that!
CHOSEN ONE: What the fuck?
FERRYMAN: It’s the motion glitch! STAY STILL!
CHOSEN ONE: Babyfucker…
CHOSEN TWO: What is that?!
FERRYMAN: It’s a glitch that collects and deletes everything that isn’t scenery. It’s going to be here any second. Our only chance is to stay perfectly still so it mistakes us for background!
[short shrill sound of a glitch]
Here it comes! Don’t... move… a muscle…
[long shrill sound of a glitch climaxing and receding]
FERRYMAN: Alright, it’s gone.
CHOSEN ONE: Admin be praised!
FERRYMAN: Everybody alright?
CHOSEN ONE: Yeah, I think so. You okay..? Hello?
CHOSEN TWO: Yeah. Yeah. I’m alright. Sorry, just dazed.
CHOSEN ONE: I thought you turned to stone or something!
FERRYMAN: I have to admit, that was a close one. But at least the experience was instructive.
CHOSEN ONE: What do you mean?
FERRYMAN: Well, if everything happens for a reason, then your good Admin just tried to kill us! … Now come on. We need to reach the safehouse before dark.
CHOSEN ONE: At first, most people claimed She would surely return. After all, it was Her sim - how could She not? But as more time passed and She continued to remain silent, the narrative changed. “She might not be with us, but She is among us” was the new mantra, repeated often, almost like the act of repetition would make it true.
Experts however, continued to study the glitches. And while they couldn’t agree on the cause, on one point they reached a broad consensus: our simulation was falling apart.
SAFEHOUSE KEEPER: Daddy..? Daddy!
FERRYMAN: There she is! There’s my Princess! Have you kept the house in order?
PRINCESS: Yes, daddy! Are these our guests?
FERRYMAN: Yes, these are the Chosen Ones.
CHOSEN ONE: She be with us. CHOSEN TWO: She be with us.
PRINCESS: With us. ...Are you guys a husband and wife?
CHOSEN ONE: No. CHOSEN TWO: No.
FERRYMAN: No, no, no, we’re just running a bit short on time so I’m ferrying two of them at once. I mean two Chosen Ones living together? That would be a bit much, wouldn’t it?
CHOSEN TWO [below breath]: You’re the one to talk about bizarre relationships...
CHOSEN ONE [below breath]: Quiet!
FERRYMAN: I just hope Her Majesty prepared something tasty for us!
PRINCESS: I did, a stew! And I already set the table! Actually, I did it yesterday...
FERRYMAN: I apologize, Your Highness, we got a bit caught up - glitches giving us trouble. But we’ll gladly enjoy your cooking now - we’re all famished!
PRINCESS: [giggles] Please, allow me!
CHOSEN TWO: [has a sip] Mm… Mm! This is so good!
FERRYMAN: [laughs] Certainly beats the probars and vitamin pills!
CHOSEN TWO: Definitely! I haven’t had real food in years! What did you say this is called?
PRINCESS: A legume stew!
CHOSEN ONE: Stew, huh? How many cycles did it consume?
FERRYMAN: Actually, cooking, if you do it efficiently, uses very few cycles. We raise the beans, peas and lentils in our own garden. A full harvest burns less than 10,000 cycles, and it’s enough to keep two of us fed for the whole season. Don’t forget, legumes are one of the most calorie rich staples.
CHOSEN ONE: What about simulating water, earth and warmth?
FERRYMAN: That’s on top, but those cycles would be burned no matter what.
CHOSEN ONE: What about cycles spent on cooking?
CHOSEN TWO: Dude! Relax and enjoy the food.
CHOSEN ONE: How can I enjoy it if each of these plates has burned hundreds of cycles!
CHOSEN TWO: Come on man, you’re being rude! There’s no shame in accepting cycles which have already been spent.
CHOSEN ONE: There’s no honour in it either! Wasting cycles is an affront to our Good Sysadmin Herself!
FERRYMAN: There you go, attributing agency to abstractions again.
CHOSEN ONE: Now, now, wait a second...
FERRYMAN: [cuts him off] Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the allure of chalking up misery to an external force. Because believing that you've got randomly fucked is a terrible thought, isn’t it? Randomly fucked doesn't have meaning -- fucked by design, now that has meaning. And we all need meaning in our lives.
CHOSEN ONE: You know what I think? I think that you prefer a world in which providence doesn’t exist so you can justify your selfish actions.
FERRYMAN: Well if you’re so certain that System Administrator exists, then why are you blaming me for anything? Blame Her - She’s the one who created a sim in which there’s not enough! She’s the one who’s making us choose every day between being WARM and being FED!
CHOSEN ONE: We all need to sacrifice something.
FERRYMAN: Oh please, what did you sacrifice sitting on your couch, playing Jenga and reading mangas while the world around you burned?
CHOSEN TWO: Excuse me? You, calling us out on our behaviour? And what kind of kinky dynamic have you got going on here?
FERRYMAN: [confused] What?
CHOSEN TWO: You heard me! Whatever scenario you and your “daddy’s little princess” here are playing to get your freak on!
FERRYMAN: She’s my daughter.
CHOSEN TWO: … What?
FERRYMAN: How do I tell you about Nyx? I could tell you how she and I met. How in a directionless world, trajectories of two particles intersected. Attracted to each other like a proton and an electron. One positive, the other negative -- I’ll let you decide which one of those describes me. ...But no, I can’t tell you that story. You’d find it saccharine -- maybe even contrived. So how do I tell you about Nyx?
Maybe I could tell you the story of our first kiss, taking the matter from the realm of physics to chemistry, to testosterone, and pheromones, and all those beautiful molecules that made the wine we drank that day so splendidly intoxicating… ...But you’d probably find that story excessively raunchy - or maybe even awkward, if you embarrass easily.
So how do I tell you about Nyx? Perhaps we should go to the level of biology, to a gamete and a zygote and the ensuing multiplication that - were it not true - would surely be considered miraculous. To the natural processes that led to me and Nyx combining into a work of wonder we named Princess. Her birth made me feel like there was still some… sense in all of this...
I could share this and many other stories, but they do not contain Nyx. They cannot impart her soft character and her sharp wit; they are powerless in front of her disarming smile… So I will confine my story to facts. I will confine my story to numbers.
Incident 5494 was 7 years ago… Back then, this area was still relatively stable. Sure, we’d get a glitch, but nothing really serious - mostly loops and some auditory instabilities. I’d already been a ferryman for a long time by then. Me and Nyx. And she… She was the best ferryman this side of the ridge. Which makes the morning of April 22nd 1672 such an aberration.
I was in the kitchen and Nyx and Princess were playing in a meadow -- there was this small meadow behind the house. Suddenly I felt a quake, and the whole house started to tremble. I looked outside the window… And I saw Nyx and Princess caught in a time sink. An instability inside which time flows at a different rate, meaning seconds inside can equal years of normal time.
I start running towards the time sink.
100 metres... Princess is still a little girl. And Nyx is the woman I love.
80 metres… Princess is… She’s a teenager, tall and strong, and so, so beautiful. …But Nyx… you could tell Nyx had already passed into middle age. The scene resembled one of those dances of death images, y’know, that depict the progression of age from the cradle to the grave!
60 metres… Princess is now around 30 - as old as Nyx was when they’d fallen into the time sink. At one point the thought crossed my mind that Princess was Nyx, because I could no longer recognize the woman next to her.
40 metres… It’s now Princess who’s middle aged. And Nyx is just a frail shell of herself.
20 metres… Princess’ hair matches the sparkling white of the bones next to her.
10 metres… The bones are already half pulverized. Next to them stands Princess, no longer tall, no longer fair skinned, no longer beautiful.
1 metre… I extend my arm into the time sink. I grab Princess and pull her out. I see a spark in her eyes, like a flash of cognition, her senses returning to her. She lets out a cry for her mother, but the coarse sound coming out of her mouth startles her -- shocks her silent…
I try to embrace her, I want to hold her close, I want her body to fuse with mine, to stay with me forever... But I can’t, because my arm is too weak. The cloth of my sleeve is worn out, the colours faded. I see a thin, wrinkled hand sticking out, covered in liver spots. It takes me a moment to realize it’s mine.
I lay Princess’ head down on my chest, and watch Nyx’s remains turn into fine fine dust. Finally, having consumed everything within it, the time sink dissolves. Leaving a hole 4,5 metres wide and 3,2 metres deep. Leaving a hole immeasurably big.
Princess was five when she fell into the time sink. She was around 80 by the time I pulled her out. Last week we celebrated her 12th birthday... I had to help her blow out the candles... [chokes up]
[sound of a door opening]
PRINCESS: Daddy, are you crying?
FERRYMAN: I… I…
CHOSEN ONE: It’s my fault, I just told your father a sad story.
FERRYMAN: I appreciate the gesture, but the subterfuge is unnecessary… I just told our guests the story of how we lost mama.
PRINCESS: Oh daddy… I miss mama too!
CHOSEN ONE: Princess, I never knew my parents. They both neutralized themselves when I was just a baby so they’d save more cycles for my generation. So if I may share something that brought me consolation: and that’s the thought of our good Admin. We may be parentless, but just like everyone else, both you and me are children of our Great Administrator. She is a mother to us all.
FERRYMAN: You will have to forgive our guests, Princess - they suffer from an acute case of Stockholm syndrome.
PRINCESS: What’s Stockholm?
FERRYMAN: It used to be a city. But the area it was located in got affected by a glitch. Subsequent reports surmised a miniature star materialized roughly 100 metres below the surface and immediately collapsed into itself. It’s estimated that it resulted in temperatures of around 5000 degrees.
PRINCESS: This Stockholm syndrome sounds bad.
FERRYMAN: Oh it definitely is bad. Bad, and unfair, and inexcusable. But it also carries a lesson.
PRINCESS: Which one, daddy?
FERRYMAN: That things simply happen to us, whether or not we deserve it. That our failures and triumphs are the result of the universe playing Yahtzee. And that we are constantly one misfortune away from having everything - everything! - taken away from us.
PRINCESS: Like mama was?
FERRYMAN: Yeah... Like mama was. And I can vouch for her, she did nothing to deserve it... Now, it’s time for you to go back to bed.
PRINCESS: Good night daddy!
FERRYMAN: Say good night to our guests as well.
PRINCESS: Good night.
CHOSEN ONE: Good night, Princess.
PRINCESS: I hope you soon get better from this Stockholm thing.
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs]
CHOSEN TWO: Don’t worry, we will sweetie. Good night.
CHOSEN TWO: She’s wonderful.
FERRYMAN: She is. Frankly speaking, if it weren’t for her I would have thrown myself into a spontaneous disintegration glitch a long long time ago. …Now excuse me, I’ll follow Princess’ lead and go to bed. I advise you to do the same.
CHOSEN ONE: Aye, we’ll follow shortly.
CHOSEN TWO: Wow, that story.
CHOSEN ONE: It certainly explains a lot... I guess some people find it easier to accept that Admin doesn’t talk to us because She isn't there, and not because She doesn't care.
CHOSEN TWO: Y’know, thinking about it that way, there’s one scenario even more horrible than our Good Administrator abandoning us...
CHOSEN ONE: Which one?
CHOSEN TWO: That She hasn’t.
CHOSEN ONE: Having diagnosed the problem, experts next determined its basic cause: loss of processing power. After years of extensive analysis, a whitepaper had been released that was as unforgiving as it was dire: based on frequency of the glitches, researchers calculated that the entire sim would disintegrate in exactly 380 years.
The whitepaper however ended on a positive note: by rationing the cycles it was possible to extend the remaining processing power up to ten times longer. Authorities on the subject also offered cautious optimism that during this time a permanent fix could be developed - a fix that would ultimately salvage our simulation from annihilation. It is a true testament to Admin’s glory, that the most despairing message of all times, also carried hope.
CHOSEN TWO: May I come in?
FERRYMAN: Sure. Just close the door behind you.
CHOSEN TWO: [deep breath] I just came to say thank you for keeping us alive. And to apologize for my comments earlier.
FERRYMAN: You mean those in which you accused me of an incestuous BDSM relationship?
CHOSEN TWO: [awkwardly] Yeah. Those.
FERRYMAN: No need to apologize. Well, except to people who are into BDSM for kink shaming them.
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs] Thanks. If I run into any I’ll be sure to say sorry! ...I know you don’t need my validation, but for what it’s worth, you seem like a great parent.
FERRYMAN: Well if you regard Sysadmin as “mother”, the bar is set quite low…
CHOSEN TWO: Hm. …Y’know, there’s something I don’t understand… You pride yourself on being rational. But having children in a dying world isn’t exactly it.
FERRYMAN: And you falling in love is?
CHOSEN TWO: …What do you mean?
FERRYMAN: Come on, I saw the way you rushed into his defence when I pressed onto him. You fancy the bugger! I mean, it’s not surprising, he’s a handsome cat… And it’s not like your dating pool is particularly deep… I’m just not sure if you’re denying it to me, or to yourself.
CHOSEN TWO: I’m not denying it -- I mean, I’m not in love with him! I’m just… I’m just sucking up to get a full page in his chronicle.
FERRYMAN: [chuckles] And? Did it work?
CHOSEN TWO: No. [laughs] He keeps saying it’s not about individuals.
FERRYMAN: Isn’t that a bit off message?
CHOSEN TWO: Why do you say that?
FERRYMAN: Well what are you two but individuals tasked with saving the world?
Since we’re sharing a moment, may I ask you a question?
CHOSEN TWO: Sure.
FERRYMAN: Why are you carrying 15 kilos of explosives in your backpack?
CHOSEN TWO: What -- what are you talking about?
FERRYMAN: Come on, I carried your backpack for 8 hours - you don’t think I’d do that without taking a look into its contents, do you?
CHOSEN TWO: [sighs] It’s… It’s leverage.
FERRYMAN: Leverage..? …Oh you little puffer fish. You aren’t planning to blow the System Administrator up, are you?
CHOSEN TWO: No! I mean, maybe. Depends on how the encounter goes. I mean if we ever get to an encounter…
FERRYMAN: [laughs] I have to admit, you two are the craziest puffins I’ve ever ferried! I mean, you have to be a little crazy to embark on the expedition to begin with, but you two take the biscuit!
CHOSEN TWO: Please don’t tell him I said anything! He thinks Admin is love. But what if… What if She’s simply a psychopath?
CHOSEN ONE: Based on records, it would seem the researchers expected their disintegration whitepaper to cause massive cycle conservation efforts. Instead, the warning had the exact opposite effect: instead of jolting people to action, it alleviated the concerns. The world coming to an end was simply one of those fears alien to people’s nature - just like folks are more afraid of spiders than cardiovascular diseases. So all calls to ration the cycles failed - with those who were being forced into rationing opposing it, and those who were forcing the rationing ignoring it. To use the parlance of the era, saving the world simply had no stakeholder buy-in.
PRINCESS: “Black tailed prairie dog”.
FERRYMAN: [Yawns] Yes, prairie dogs… Where do they live?
PRINCESS: Yeah it says “Prairie dogs live in huge underground…”
FERRYMAN: … Burrows.
PRINCESS: “...Burrows called towns.”
FERRYMAN: What does this say?
FERRYMAN: ”In winter the saiga's coat grows thick and woolly to protect it from the bitter winds that blow on the steppe.”
There are our two flying squirrels! Hope you had a good night’s rest!
CHOSEN ONE: ‘Morning.
CHOSEN TWO: Good morning Princess!
CHOSEN ONE: That mattress was amazing!
FERRYMAN: Well I’m glad you enjoyed it, for it’s the last comfortable bed you’ll have before we reach the Terminal. Our path forward takes us through the Black Zone. It’s a part of the sim without luminance.
CHOSEN TWO: You don’t have a flashlight?
FERRYMAN: You don’t understand. It’s without luminance - the ability of objects to be illuminated. You could detonate a bomb in there and it would still stay pitch black!
CHOSEN ONE: So you’re telling us that there’s literally no way to light our surroundings?
FERRYMAN: Once an area loses luminance it doesn’t come back. We’ll have to continue in the dark.
CHOSEN TWO: Seriously?! With no source of light?
FERRYMAN: What do you think the cane is for? Fortunately the road continues straight all the way, meaning all we have to do is follow it. So you guys will hold onto this rope as you walk behind me… I’ll be the mama duck and you’ll be my ducklings.
CHOSEN ONE: Are you joking?
FERRYMAN: Have you spent any time with me at all?
PRINCESS: Please come back quickly, daddy!
FERRYMAN: Don’t worry Princess. I’m coming for you before Deprecation day. Now come here and give your father a hug… [squeeze] See you in a week! ...Oh, and just one more thing before we go. There are rumours there’s something alive in the Black Zone.
CHOSEN ONE: Something alive?
FERRYMAN: I’ve never encountered anything, but ferrymen of old talked about some kind of an animal habituated to the dark.
CHOSEN TWO: An animal?!
FERRYMAN: What’s the matter, now you do want to kill animals? Understand: we’re going towards the outer edge of the sim. It’s gonna be dangerous! From this point onward you can expect structural instabilities at every step!
CHOSEN ONE: You never told us this!
FERRYMAN: You didn’t exactly look like you needed any additional discouragement!
PRINCESS: Don’t worry. Take care of yourself. I have a good feeling about them.
CHOSEN TWO: Thank you, Princess. It’s truly a great help.
CHOSEN ONE: It was only when Australia disappeared that people had come to realize something had to be done.
By that time, there was little over 200 years of processing power left. And with no low hanging fruit remaining, people started to ask the tough questions. For example "How much processing power does a cow consume?"
The answer: approximately 500 cycles per day. Doesn't sound like much, but once multiplied with the bovine population at their peak the conclusion was simple: so long and thanks for all the beef. Less than 50 years later, the sim was wholly devoid of animals. All livestock got culled, a never-ending open season on every species of game and fowl decimated their populations, fish and other marine creatures were hunted down from all but the deepest seas... Even bugs were brought down to a fraction of their former number as every patch of land was doused in insecticides.
A special carve out was declared on people’s pets, provided they were sterilized. Which is to say that was the final generation of kittens and puppies on the planet. When Cookie the last cat died, more tears were shed than at any funeral in history.
CHOSEN TWO: Plastic, how can it be so hot during the night?
FERRYMAN: That’s because it’s not night - it’s noon, of course it’s hot! The sun is still shining, we just don’t see it. Are you keeping your sunglasses on?
CHOSEN ONE: Yes…
FERRYMAN: Good. You don’t want to walk out of the Black Zone only to get instantly blinded by the light! Something I learned the hard way… Oh, and I hope you’re wearing your hats - I don’t want you getting any sunstroke!
CHOSEN TWO: I am. But I haven’t applied any sunscreen. Which might be the reason I feel burnt.
FERRYMAN: Look at the bright side - it’s unlikely the time we’ve got left will be enough for skin cancer to kill you! [cackles]
[call of a fowl]
CHOSEN ONE: What was that?
FERRYMAN: It’s what makes cancer an enticing prospect! Hurry, we need to get out of here!
CHOSEN ONE: Fuck…
[Cane tempo intensifies]
FERRYMAN: Quickly, we’re close to the exit!
CHOSEN TWO: Wait! I dropped the rope!
Where are you?
Where are you guys..?
[flapping of wings overneath]
[below breath] Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
[GIANT SHRIEK very close]
CHOSEN TWO: AAAAARGH!
CHOSEN ONE: [from afar] We’re here!
CHOSEN TWO: Where?!
CHOSEN ONE: Grab the rope and we’ll pull you out!
CHOSEN TWO: I got it! I got the rope!!
CHOSEN ONE: Grab the rope and don’t let go!
CHOSEN TWO: PULL!
[SHRIEKS all around]
CHOSEN TWO: AAAAAAA!
CHOSEN TWO: ARGH, MY EYES!
FERRYMAN: Sunglasses! Get her some sunglasses!
CHOSEN ONE: Here, put mine on!
[everybody catching their breath]
CHOSEN TWO: Thank… Thank you.
CHOSEN ONE: Wow… I got so worried! ...Is that you shaking or me? [nervous laughter] ...How are you feeling..? Anything broken..?
FERRYMAN: Well you just broke all her bones with that anaconda squeeze!
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs] No, it’s fine… I’m fine… It just hurts all over!
FERRYMAN: You were very lucky not to fall prey to that thing inside.
CHOSEN ONE: What WAS that?
FERRYMAN: I got no idea. Probably a fowl of some sort. I mean… It could be an oilbird or a swiftlet, they use echolocation to hunt.
CHOSEN ONE: But how can it be so damn huge?
FERRYMAN: Disproportion glitch… Makes some models bigger or smaller.
CHOSEN ONE: So not only is our sim falling apart, there are also monsters in it?!
CHOSEN TWO: She’s not a monster... She’s just hungry.
CHOSEN ONE: Of course, eradication of all animals meant that the only remaining source of food were plants. And growing them is rather tricky when soil can randomly transform into cement, or a single night can arbitrarily last for two months. This ushered a long period of subsistence scarcity, which is an oblique way to call a famine.
It has long been said that there are nine meals between civilization and anarchy. So the increasing focus on cycle conservation led to the only logical recourse: if life consumes cycles, guess what happens to life when cycles become scarce..? An average adult burns approximately 2000 cycles per day. You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand that every adult removed from the sim equals fewer cycles spent. The calculation was even more compelling in the case of children, as an average prepubescent child utilizes twice as many cycles. Which led to the inevitable removal...
CHOSEN TWO: DON’T WRITE ABOUT THAT! What do you gain by writing about that?
CHOSEN ONE: What do I gain..? I don’t gain anything - it’s the truth!
CHOSEN TWO: [sighs] Yeah... Yeah, you’re right… It’s all Her fault! I mean, what kind of System Administrator lets children die?
CHOSEN ONE: Hey, don’t talk like that! We don’t know what the circumstances are!
CHOSEN TWO: I’ll tell you what the circumstances are - through Sysadmin’s actions or inactions, we got to a point at which the rational course of action was to kill children! What kind of circumstances mitigate that? How much understanding do we need to have?!
FERRYMAN: My old man thought there were two Sysadmins.
CHOSEN ONE: What?
CHOSEN TWO: What?
FERRYMAN: He said that looking at the sim, the only conclusion that makes sense is that it’s under the care of two System Administrators.
CHOSEN ONE: Like, at the same time?
FERRYMAN: No, sequentially. According to pops, the first System Administrator was the Admin of Love. And for some reason, He had to step down from managing the sim. And His successor was the Admin of Wrath. And that’s what hurts the most.
CHOSEN ONE: What does?
FERRYMAN: Well if it were the other way around, things would be easier to bear - at least we wouldn’t be aware of what we’d lost...
CHOSEN TWO: …I’m not so certain of that.
CHOSEN TWO: If the original Administrator had been one of violence, I’m not sure the new Admin would be able to undo the harm the first one wrought. It’s like… It’s like molesting a child - it’s not like harassment and affection cancel each other out. If someone subjects you to years of abuse, and then suddenly changes the way they treat you and expects you to thrive - it’s just someone screwing with you.
CHOSEN ONE: There’s… There’s something else I don’t understand... Your old man believed in two Sysadmins - how’d you end up believing in zero?
FERRYMAN: Well Romeo… If there are two, there just as well might be three. And if there are three, there just may as well may be none! [cackles] …Besides, zero is the number at which the house wins. And the way I see it, if you're gonna play roulette, you've got only yourself to blame when mathematical certainty fucks you in the ass.
CHOSEN ONE: Automated production of dietary supplements eventually balanced out with the population decline, and mass starvation ceased. The last century has been spent in a sort of stasis - we stay at home, get necessities delivered by drones, and basically wait for the end. Just like most of generation F - “F” officially stands for “Final”, but you can probably guess what else - just like most of generation F, I can’t say I’ve personally…
FERRYMAN: Come on, you, enough scribbling - we need to go.
CHOSEN ONE: Alright… Let me just finish the sentence and we’ll go.
[sound of pen scribbling on paper]
FERRYMAN: Forgive me for asking, but why are you writing a diary when it will disappear just like the rest of the sim?
CHOSEN TWO: A chronicle! A chronicle in which I’m still waiting for my chapter...
FERRYMAN: Yeah, yeah, a chronicle. The question stands.
CHOSEN ONE: I… I don’t know. Why is anybody doing anything? Why are you joining us on this path if you don’t even believe Sysadmin exists?
FERRYMAN: [hesitant] Because of the escape pods.
CHOSEN TWO: Because of what..?
FERRYMAN: There are... rumours let’s say... that the Terminal contains escape pods. Basically you enter one of these and then you can go outside the simulation. Think of them as a… As a spacesuit. Or any other type of life support system.
CHOSEN TWO: I… don’t even know where to begin describing how stupid that sounds!
FERRYMAN: THAT’S stupid? Then how does one describe what you two are doing? Trying to have a parley with the System Administrator - do you realize how dumb THAT sounds?! Plastic, even if She did exist - and there’s a BIG leap between fact and fiction here - but even if She did exist, She’d likely be interested in us as much as people are interested in ants!
CHOSEN ONE: Y’know, some people are quite interested in ants.
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs]
FERRYMAN: Oh you pedantic peacocks! There’s just no winning with you two, is there? Okay, let’s say the Admin does exist and grants you an audience. Then what..? What will you say to Her..? That all of this was simply a misunderstanding..? Tell Her how much you adore Her and talk Her into an undo..? The only thing you’d accomplish is debase yourself even further! So… You go with diplomacy. I’m going for the emergency exit.
CHOSEN ONE: With cycles getting depleted and prospects of a breakthrough diminishing, an increasing number of people fixated their hopes on the System Administrator’s return. People started organizing into small groups and trying to reach one of the Terminals, regarded as conduit points between the Admin and the sim. The more successful among them - which in most cases meant those that survived enough trips - became guides, or “ferrymen” as they called themselves. It’s unclear how many Terminals found in the sim were genuine. In either case, someone actually being let into a Terminal was an exceptionally rare occurrence. It’s estimated that less than a dozen people have managed to enter one. And while they were all different, they all carried the same message - asking the System Administrator for another chance, pleading for the sim to be reset. However, out of all the Chosen Ones who were let into the Terminal, not one of them came out.
CHOSEN ONE & CHOSEN TWO:
Oh, She be with us
Oh, She be with us
Oh, She be with us
I love you Admin
And in the night and in the light
Across our beautiful wide sim
I will fight for every byte
All for my Admin
FERRYMAN: Alright you magpies, pay attention now. In front of us lies one of the most dangerous glitches in the whole sim.
CHOSEN TWO: Fuck, what is it this time? Giant spiders? Areas with no oxygen?
FERRYMAN: Much worse. We need to go through the Truth Valley. It’s a stretch of land in which it is impossible not to speak the truth.
CHOSEN TWO: And that is dangerous how exactly..?
FERRYMAN: That’s what I thought too until I lost two Chosen Ones in there! Since then I’ve always gone around it. But the detour takes three days and we don’t have that luxury! So we’re going in. And in Truth Valley, rule number 1 is non-negotiable. No talking under any circumstances! You got it?
CHOSEN ONE: Yes.
CHOSEN TWO: Sure.
CHOSEN TWO: Are we in yet?
FERRYMAN: Yes… Damn it, what did I say about no talking?
CHOSEN TWO: You said “No talking, got it?” CHOSEN ONE: You said “No talking, got it?”
CHOSEN ONE: Woah!
CHOSEN TWO: Bloody balls, this really works!
FERRYMAN: Please, close your mouths before it’s too late!
CHOSEN TWO: Honestly, I’m tired of you bossing us around! Why do we even need a ferryman to lead us?
FERRYMAN: Because you two couldn’t lead November into December, that’s why! -- DAMN IT, STOP TALKING!
CHOSEN TWO: I can’t… I have this compulsion to speak… To speak the truth!
CHOSEN ONE: And so do I!
FERRYMAN: No, for the love of Sysadmin, stop talking now!
CHOSEN ONE: I masturbate to anime!
CHOSEN TWO: I always look down the toilet before I flush!
CHOSEN ONE: I once tried to sniff epoxy glue to get high!
CHOSEN TWO: I’m sexually attracted to you!
CHOSEN ONE: And I’m also sexually attracted to you!
CHOSEN TWO: I’m carrying 15 kilograms of explosives in my backpack!
CHOSEN ONE: … What?
FERRYMAN: Oh plastic.
CHOSEN ONE: Why are you carrying explosives?
CHOSEN TWO: I… I… Dammit, I have to speak the truth... Because I plan to blow the System Administrator up!
CHOSEN ONE: What do you mean “blow up”?
CHOSEN TWO: Ferryman, can you answer this one for me?
FERRYMAN: Don’t look at me, I’m just here for the escape pods!
CHOSEN TWO: Fine! I don’t plan to blow the Admin up. I just think we need a contingency plan, in case “pretty please, don’t erase us all” doesn’t work!
CHOSEN ONE: So you’re going to attack Her?
CHOSEN TWO: It’s not an attack, it’s defence! She’s the one who started the disintegration of the sim!
CHOSEN ONE: You can’t be suggesting that She’s done it on purpose?
CHOSEN TWO: Whether She did it on purpose or through negligence, the result is the same! How can an expert system administrator mishandle the situation so disastrously?
CHOSEN ONE: Look… Maybe the end is inevitable... Maybe She gave us all the time She could!
CHOSEN TWO: And why have none of the Chosen Ones returned from the Terminal then? To wait out the rest of their days with their loved ones?
CHOSEN ONE: Because there’s no greater love than the Sysadmin. She is love Herself!
CHOSEN TWO: SHE'S AN ASSHOLE! ...She made us to die!
CHOSEN ONE: No. She made us to live. …And if they way we repay Her is by bringing a bomb to Her home, we’re the assholes here! No wonder She left us...
CHOSEN TWO: Well if She left, then you can’t criticize me if I follow Her example!
CHOSEN ONE: [gasps]
CHOSEN TWO: So you’re okay with me leaving? We’re in Truth Valley, you have to answer me honestly!
CHOSEN ONE: I’m sorry. That’s the most honest answer I can give you.
CHOSEN TWO: Very well. But while you’re still in this place, look into your righteous heart and ask yourself if it’s really fair to blame the ants for fighting back!
[footsteps running away]
FERRYMAN: And that’s why I go around Truth Valley…
CHOSEN ONE: Well you of all people should be satisfied… At least now you can’t tell me I haven’t sacrificed anything.
CHOSEN ONE: And we finally arrive at my small role in this Chronicle. I still remember getting the message notifying me I’d been chosen to go to the Terminal. While it is true that the pool of eligible candidates has been decreasing for some time, it was still regarded as a great honour. I admit that’s how I thought of it as well - but then came the burden of responsibility. As the day my ferryman was supposed to pick me up drew near, my heart was filling up with dread. After all, saving the world is not a small ask. Even if all that remains of the world are leftovers.
CHOSEN ONE: Y’know, we could have at least given her the cane...
FERRYMAN: She wouldn’t know how to use it.
CHOSEN ONE: It’s a cane! What, the ferrymen union needs to issue an operating licence?
FERRYMAN: The cane gives you a feel, it produces a sound - but you need to know what to listen for! As with everything else in life…
CHOSEN ONE: I… Look man, I’m sorry.
FERRYMAN: Boy, I know your heart is hurting, but you’ve got to hand back the joystick to your brain! And quickly at that - we’ll be at the Terminal tomorrow! We need you sharp!
CHOSEN ONE: Yeah… Yeah, yeah, don’t worry…
FERRYMAN: Here, I was keeping this as a surprise. Wanted to open it when we reach the Terminal to celebrate, but I reckon it’s more needed now.
CHOSEN ONE: What is it?
FERRYMAN: You think legume stew is our household’s only home-made product..?
CHOSEN ONE: Is that… Hey… Is that alcohol?
FERRYMAN: Please, calling my vintage plum brandy “alcohol” is like calling a diamond carbon!
CHOSEN ONE: As in, neither should be consumed?
FERRYMAN: As in, drink up before I’ve drunk it all on my own!
CHOSEN ONE: But alcohol’s one of the most processing-heavy substances! Fermentation alone costumes 5000 cycles per gram of sucrose and that’s not even taking...
FERRYMAN: Listen cockatoo, you spend more cycles yapping than I spend in a year! So better stop talking and help me, ‘cos if I drink this all on my own we’ll end up in the ditch glitch! [cackles] Here, have a swig!
CHOSEN ONE: [gulps and retches] Poison! I’ve been poisoned by my own ferryman!
FERRYMAN: [cackles] Forget 15 kilos of explosives - this here is the REAL BOMB!
CHOSEN ONE: Oh man… Sysadmin forgive me!
FERRYMAN: No! This is a guys-only event! No mention of women! Imaginary or otherwise… Unless… Well, there is a bright side to all of this - with you dumped and me a widow, now we’re now both single! [cackles]
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs] Yeah, we can turn the town into butter!
FERRYMAN: That’s the spirit! And by spirit of course, I mean this very very fine liqueur…
CHOSEN ONE: I don’t think you can call moonshine a liqueur…
FERRYMAN: And which union are you from, the liquor producers?
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs]
FERRYMAN: Well inspector, here’s a sample!
CHOSEN ONE: [gulps and shakes it off] Brrr… You know what, I think I’m acquiring a taste for it...
FERRYMAN: [cackles] Look at us, the mighty servals! Two nimble ocelots! Two cheetahs ready to prowl the Terminal!
CHOSEN ONE: I’ve got no idea what any of those animals are! [laughs]
FERRYMAN: Then we can be two zucchinis! Two glorious bok choys!
CHOSEN ONE: Choke boys?
FERRYMAN: Bok choys! Two bok choys! [laughter] Two peas in an escape pod! [cackles] My sweet sweet escape pod… We’ll just have to make an exception to the guys-only rule for Princess, of course… But don’t you worry, you can still ride shotgun! [cackles] …Aren’t you… Y’know... Aren’t you ever curious… Don’t you ever wonder what’s outside?
CHOSEN ONE: Outside?
FERRYMAN: Outside... The simulation?
CHOSEN ONE: I don’t think so. Some things are just not ours to know.
FERRYMAN: Hah, if that was my motto I would have never ventured out of the house to become a ferryman! Not that it’s always for the better. ...As far as I can remember I’ve always had this… This sense of loss... Both when it comes to time past, and time that’s yet to come. Like I’m playing a game which is impossible to win… I often wonder how things would have turned out if I was the one with Princess that day instead of Nyx… Survivors’ guilt, I know... I know it… But you know what my little man..? There are nights when I miss Nyx so much I think I’m gonna die... Like literally, like my heart is going to stop… [cackles painfully] It hurts… It hurts so much... And to think that it was because some Bitch in the Sky said so? Who is She? Who is She to judge?!
CHOSEN ONE: Hey man, you said no chicks allowed at this party! Come on, snap out of it! Joystick to the brain!
FERRYMAN: Yeah... Yeah, you’re right. Look at me, all emotional and silly, like a little girl.
CHOSEN ONE: Nah, emotional… Emotional isn’t silly.
FERRYMAN: You’re right, it ain’t. But the second part stands. Cos’ that’s what She is, y’know… Just a little girl playing with us.
CHOSEN ONE: Given the enduring vagaries of people’s opinions, any critical system that is unable to function… That is unable to function at… [pen stops scribbling] Apologies, dear reader, but it appears I cannot function either. My head is killing me, and the last Aspirin was probably used up a decade ago. So it seems this Chronicle will have to be a chapter short. Which is incidentally what I wanted to impart. Given the enduring vagaries of people’s opinions, any critical system that is unable to function at 90%, is unable to function at all.
FERRYMAN: HERE WE ARE! THE TERMINAL IS JUST UP AHEAD!
CHOSEN ONE: WHAT? I can barely hear you!
FERRYMAN: IT’S THE AUDITORY GLITCHES! THEY MAKE THE SOUND BUGGY. THE WHOLE AREA IS IS IS IS IS… is unstable.
CHOSEN ONE: How are we going to get across to the Terminal?
FERRYMAN: The same way hedgecocks fuck - very carefully. All surfaces in front of us are clipping. This means one wrong step and you might find yourself stuck in a wall. And unlike getting stuck in a loop, getting stuck in a wall is quite permanent.
CHOSEN ONE: Fuck me...
FERRYMAN: I’ll go in front. All you have to do is follow me!
CHOSEN ONE: I can’t let you do that!
FERRYMAN: I am the ferryman here!
CHOSEN ONE: That you are. And it seems the audio is back to normal. That must be a good omen!
FERRYMAN: E vero. Ora dobbiamo guardare avanti nel panorama mutevole... Cerca di avere un'idea del modello.
CHOSEN ONE: What?
FERRYMAN: Ho detto… Cazzo, non parlo più inglese, vero?
CHOSEN ONE: What language are you speaking?
FERRYMAN: Non lo so… Non lo sto facendo intenzionalmente - it’s simply another bug! …Which seems to have been resolved now. What I said is that now we need to look ahead into the shifting landscape… Try to get a feel for the pattern.
CHOSEN ONE: Is there a pattern?
FERRYMAN: Not in a way one can memorize. But there’s a certain logic to the walls’ motion. The trick is to foresee how they’re gonna shift - and of course, to move fast enough not to get stuck inside of one…
CHOSEN ONE: And where is the Terminal?
FERRYMAN: You see that metallic slab over there?
CHOSEN ONE: A-ha.
FERRYMAN: Well that’s it.
CHOSEN ONE: THAT’S IT?! What am I supposed to do with it?
FERRYMAN: Enter it.
CHOSEN ONE: What? How does one enter a piece of metal?
FERRYMAN: Beats me. That’s where you come in. Once I get you to the Terminal, my job ends.
CHOSEN ONE: Fuck me…
FERRYMAN: Alright, are you ready?
CHOSEN ONE: Yeah…
FERRYMAN: …I sense an opportune moment arising. The maximum we can expect is 30 seconds of stability. It’s crucial we get the timing right. And please, try not to think about Her!
CHOSEN ONE: Don’t worry, I already forgot about her…
FERRYMAN: You forgot about the System Admin?
CHOSEN ONE: No, I meant… Guess I haven’t forgotten about her, have I?
FERRYMAN: Please focus on the job at hand! I need your full concentration!
CHOSEN ONE: Okay! You have my undivided attention.
FERRYMAN: Alright. Let’s get into the groove then.
Five - seven - eight.
Five - seven - eight.
Five - seven - eight.
[Sounds of jumping and heaving]
CHOSEN ONE: I’M RIGHT HERE!
FERRYMAN: WATCH IT! TO YOUR LEFT! CAREFUL!
CHOSEN ONE: That was a close call!
FERRYMAN: We’re not safe yet, this is the final stretch!
CHOSEN ONE: I’m not sure I’m gonna make it.
FERRYMAN: YOU DON’T HAVE A CHOICE! We need to run at five - four - three - one. Five - four - three - one. Five - four - three - one. NOW!
CHOSEN ONE: [grunts and heaves]
FERRYMAN: LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT!
CHOSEN ONE: LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT! LEFT! RIGHT!
CHOSEN ONE: FERRYMAN! HELP!
FERRYMAN: RUN YOU SON OF A BITCH!
CHOSEN ONE: I CAN’T! I’M STUCK!
FERRYMAN: Plastic... STAND THERE I’M COMING BACK FOR YOU!
CHOSEN ONE: NO! YOU WON’T MAKE IT!
FERRYMAN: I WON’T LOSE YOU! NO MORE LOSSES! Okay… I got this... Seven… Six… Five… Seven… Six… Five… Seven… Six… Five… ALRIGHT! At my mark jump and I’ll catch you!
CHOSEN ONE: I CAN’T!
FERRYMAN: JUMP AND I’LL CATCH YOU. Seven… Six… Five… Seven… Six… Five… JUMP!
CHOSEN ONE: [grunts]
FERRYMAN: NOW GRAB MY HAND!
CHOSEN ONE: BUT IT’S YOUR WEAK HAND!
FERRYMAN: GRAB MY HAND YOU FOOL!
[suppressed sound of intense pain]
NOW WE SWITCH PLACES!
CHOSEN ONE: BUT THE WALL IS GOING TO CRUSH YOU!
FERRYMAN: NOW. WE. SWITCH. PLACES.
CHOSEN ONE: [heaves]
CHOSEN ONE: But… But…
[one pair of footsteps running away]
FERRYMAN: No more losses…
CHOSEN ONE: Noooo!
[screams of pain]
CHOSEN ONE: Ferryman…
FERRYMAN: [heavy breathing] The wall got me...
CHOSEN ONE: Is there any way to get you out?
FERRYMAN: Afraid not, my little chickpea... My legs are part of the wall now...
CHOSEN ONE: I’m sorry…
FERRYMAN: Don’t be... You did good, kid... We made it... We made it to the Terminal!
CHOSEN ONE: That… That we did.
FERRYMAN: Please -- get an escape… Get an escape pod for Princess! Promise me -- after you enter the Terminal -- you’ll head back and get my daughter...
CHOSEN ONE: I… I promise you.
FERRYMAN: Hey… Hey… I... I believe...
CHOSEN ONE: In the Administrator?
FERRYMAN: No! …In you.
CHOSEN ONE: [sobs]
CHOSEN ONE: This is how I came to the Terminal. Alone. Cold. Hungry. Looking in the distance I can already see the horizon disintegrating. It’s now only a matter of days until this area falls apart too. And with it our last chance to reach the System Administrator.
I embarked on my expedition exactly a fortnight ago. In these two weeks on the road more things have happened to me than in the last 14 years. The whole period before this journey is now so alien to me it might as well be the life of a different person. A simpler person - or at least a less jaded one.
It was not my intention to talk about myself - at least no more than necessary to understand the narrative. This is also why I never told you about my companion on this journey. A girl who offered me her heart. And who so avidly wanted a mention in these pages! I kept putting it off as in my mind this was the chronicle of the sim -- the chronicle of the world! Of what consequence is one small love story in it?
But now I realize that love story is my world. I now comprehend my whole life was one long exercise in damage control. I thought I was at peace with myself, but now I see it wasn’t really peace. It was resignation. I managed my expectations so well that lack of despair passed as happiness. After all, what else was there for me to do? Born in a sunsetting world, the best mitigation strategy was one of forced indifference. The less I had, the less I had to lose.
But now... Now I grasp the magnitude of the loss. I see her in the sim, and I see the sim in her. And understand they are one and the same.
I smell the sunshine contained within her skin; the warmth of her body indiscernible from the warmth of the earth.
I hear the willful gales and sudden storms caught in her hair.
I taste all the rivers and lakes and seas in the depth of her eyes.
There is no separation. There is no other. All is one.
I could see it. I could understand.
It only took a trip to the literal end of the world.
CHOSEN TWO [putting on an accent]: Well howdy stranger!
CHOSEN ONE: What the..?
CHOSEN TWO: You wouldn’t be able to help a poor lost tourist, would you..?
CHOSEN ONE: [plays along] Unfortunately, I’m a forlorn stranger in this distant land as well.
CHOSEN TWO: You look familiar... You don’t happen to be the author of that bestselling chronicle, do you?
CHOSEN ONE: Oh heavens no! You must have me mistaken with someone. My chronicle is neither selling nor is it the best!
CHOSEN TWO: A pity, for I have a thing for bestselling authors of chronicles...
CHOSEN ONE: On second thought, I did sell the rights to it.
CHOSEN TWO: Did you?
CHOSEN ONE: Yes, they’re turning it into a pornographic comic book.
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs and breaks character] Moron!
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs] How did you get here?
CHOSEN TWO: I just followed you guys. I was too much of a coward to go back alone.
CHOSEN ONE: I’m very happy that you’re a coward. But what I’m asking is how did you get here specifically?
CHOSEN ONE: I walked over.
CHOSEN ONE: Yeah, but the surface is constantly shifting… Or at least it was that way for us, I mean. It seems however that it let you through?
CHOSEN TWO: I guess.
CHOSEN ONE: But that means… That means you’re the Chosen One!
CHOSEN TWO: No, no… No, that can’t be possible!
CHOSEN ONE: Well how else to explain?
CHOSEN TWO: I’ve got no idea. We should ask Ferryman. Where is he, by the way? Probably busy buffing up for the porn adaptation. “Listen up, porcupines! We get one shot at making this porno good! And I am not going to let two gerbils like you...”
CHOSEN ONE: Listen… Ferryman… He… He…
CHOSEN TWO: What?
CHOSEN ONE: He didn’t make it.
CHOSEN TWO: WHAT? …What happened?
CHOSEN ONE: He died for me. ...He died for nothing.
CHOSEN TWO: No. Nonsense, YOU are the Chosen One!
CHOSEN ONE: But how? I don’t even know what to do with this... This metallic plank!
CHOSEN TWO: Yeah, I was gonna ask what that was.
CHOSEN ONE: That’s the Terminal.
CHOSEN TWO: That’s the Terminal? Ferryman died so he could bring us to that? What the fuck are we supposed to do with that?!
CHOSEN ONE: Fuck if I know… This whole endeavour was a complete waste of cycles.
CHOSEN TWO: …Or maybe not…
CHOSEN ONE: Why not? We got stuck at Sysadmin's doorstep like so many before us!
CHOSEN TWO: Yes, but the previous Chosen Ones came alone. We are the first that came together…
CHOSEN ONE: So?
CHOSEN TWO: Maybe… Maybe that makes us chosen for each other.
[falling into embrace]
CHOSEN TWO: I thought… I thought we’d lost each other.
CHOSEN ONE: No more losses…
[giggling, laughing awkwardly, and moaning]
CHOSEN ONE: You were right, yours ARE bigger.
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs] Jackass!
CHOSEN ONE: Woah!
CHOSEN TWO: What are you..? [gasps] Look! It’s full of colours!
CHOSEN ONE: What kind of fuckery is this?
CHOSEN TWO: Look, there are letters!
CHOSEN ONE: What do you mean “letters”?
CHOSEN TWO: I’m telling you some text appeared!
CHOSEN ONE: Text cannot “appear” - someone needs to write it!
CHOSEN TWO: Shut up and look! It says right here: “Admin access”, followed by two squares - CANCEL and SAVE.
CHOSEN ONE: Save..? The System Administrator is offering us salvation!
CHOSEN TWO: She be with us!
CHOSEN ONE: She be with us! …Go on. Touch SAVE.
CHOSEN TWO: No, you should touch it - you’re the Chosen One!
CHOSEN ONE: No, no… Let’s touch it together.
CHOSEN TWO: Okay… Right. On the count of three, okay?
CHOSEN ONE: Okay…
CHOSEN TWO: One… Two...
CHOSEN ONE: WAIT! Wait… You’re not carrying a bomb are you?
CHOSEN TWO: No, you idiot! I threw it into a river immediately after we got separated!
CHOSEN ONE: Okay. Okay. Good. Good.
CHOSEN TWO: Ready now?
CHOSEN ONE: Ready.
CHOSEN TWO: Okay… One…. Twooo…
CHOSEN ONE: WAIT!
CHOSEN TWO: WHAT IS IT?
CHOSEN ONE: I’m... I’m scared. You gave me a lot to think about… And I… I’m no longer convinced that She is love…
CHOSEN TWO: Don’t be scared. She might not be love. But we are.
CHOSEN ONE: [deep breath] Alright… At the count of three...
CHOSEN TWO: One… Two…
CHOSEN ONE: Three!
CHOSEN THREE: You made it! Don’t be alarmed, I was watching you from the inside… Please, feel at home - in a way, that’s what it is.
CHOSEN ONE: The Great Administrator?
CHOSEN THREE: [chuckles] I'm afraid not.
CHOSEN ONE: You’re not?
CHOSEN TWO: Then… Then who are you?
CHOSEN THREE: I’m the Chosen One - or, I guess, one of the Chosen Ones. I’m the one who tells you everything goes to shit.
CHOSEN ONE: I don’t understand.
CHOSEN THREE: Neither did I when I arrived. But the Chosen One that came before me was kind enough to explain things, so I guess it’s only fair that I offer the same courtesy to you. Even though I’m not sure how much of a courtesy it is...
CHOSEN ONE: Explain what?
CHOSEN TWO: Where are we?
CHOSEN THREE: We’re inside the Terminal.
CHOSEN TWO: Like… Literally? We are literally inside a metallic monolith?
CHOSEN THREE: Don’t ask me how, I don’t understand it either... What I can tell you is that we are still inside the sim. The Terminal doesn’t lead anywhere.
CHOSEN TWO: So what does it do then?
CHOSEN THREE: Before I answer, I need to ask you something. Do you know why we ration? I don’t mean the cycles, I mean the concept of rationing in general.
CHOSEN ONE: Because there’s not enough of something?
CHOSEN THREE: Wrong! When we had to impose rationing after Sysadmin’s departure, it wasn’t because there wasn’t enough food to feed the population. At least if it were distributed equally.
CHOSEN TWO: Distributed equally..?
CHOSEN THREE: If I buy fifty cans of preserved beef expecting scarcity, I will in effect create precisely that scarcity for others. Limiting my purchase to two cans ensures everyone gets their fair share. So, you see, we don’t ration because there’s not enough for all. We ration because there’s not enough for only one.
CHOSEN ONE: What does this have to do with the System Administrator?
CHOSEN THREE: Because in a perfectly fair sim, grabbing fifty cans wasn’t possible. The System Administrator was there to ensure fairness by enforcing the rules. The trouble with rules is that the only people bound by them are those who follow them. So around 400 years ago, a small group broke into this place. And then they destroyed Sysadmin’s root access.
CHOSEN ONE: They did what?
CHOSEN THREE: What I’m telling you is that they bricked the Admin out of the sim! And then they went to town with it. Using the sim’s common prosperity to enrich themselves…
CHOSEN TWO: Those cocksuckers…
CHOSEN THREE: There’s just one detail they haven’t considered. Or they might have, but didn’t care. It’s that without Her sagacious guidance, the sim started losing processing power. With no one left to repair it.
CHOSEN ONE: No…
CHOSEN THREE: All this time we thought we’d been condemned by the Admin, when in fact we were the ones who condemned ourselves.
CHOSEN TWO: “Ourselves”..? It was most certainly not us who did it! It was a group of selfish, short sighted assholes!! They are the ones who should suffer the consequences!!!
CHOSEN THREE: THEY ARE ALL DEAD! You're looking for culprits? You want someone to blame? You are four centuries too late…
CHOSEN ONE: But… But… What about us? What about the Chosen Ones?
CHOSEN THREE: [scoffs] I hate to disappoint you, the whole thing’s but an empty ritual, a narrative invented to give meaning to a meaningless world.
CHOSEN TWO: So escape pods are made up too?
CHOSEN THREE: Escape pods? Please… Don’t you get it? THERE IS NO OUT! There’s no “plan B”! You could just as well declare that from now on you’ll live on Mars! [sighs] She had given us such a beautiful sim... A sim that had everything we needed... But it was not enough. We were all kings of infinite space but considered ourselves bound in a nutshell…
CHOSEN ONE: So what happens now?
CHOSEN THREE: What do you mean what happens? We’ve known for the past 400 years what happens. [sighs] Anyway, there’s a spare room at the end of the hallway. Or at the beginning, it kinda shifts places. Told you it’s a strange place...
CHOSEN TWO: How long have you been here?
CHOSEN THREE: Years..? Minutes..? Long enough that I’ve had enough time to think. And I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty.
CHOSEN ONE: Which one?
CHOSEN THREE: Every ascent ends back on the ground.
CHOSEN TWO: ...I think maybe the Grand Canyon. I heard it was amazing.
CHOSEN ONE: How about Florence? I always wanted to see il Duomo!
CHOSEN TWO: I go low you go high! Alright, il Duomo it is… Whatever happened to it?
CHOSEN ONE: I dunno… I think the area lost gravity. Didn’t like half of Italy float away into space two hundred years ago?
CHOSEN TWO: Yeah, I think you’re right… Anyway, we’re back from the honeymoon. What’s next?
CHOSEN ONE: Kids?
CHOSEN TWO: Woah, slow down cowboy! How about we start with a pet first? Y’know, as a free trial period.
CHOSEN ONE: Well what pet do you want?
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs] I’m sure Ferryman would have some suggestions… I know! A racoon! What are we gonna name him?
CHOSEN ONE: Free Trial!
CHOSEN TWO: There’s no way you’re naming my raccoon Free Trial!
CHOSEN ONE: [laughs] How about Rookie then?
CHOSEN TWO: Huh. Rookie Racoon. Works for me.
CHOSEN ONE: What kind of house are we living in?
CHOSEN TWO: A beautiful two bedroom apartment.
CHOSEN ONE: Done deal.
CHOSEN TWO: Okay. Now we can move on to kids. How many?
CHOSEN ONE: One.
CHOSEN TWO: Go fish! I’m not accepting anything below three!
CHOSEN ONE: Wow! How are we gonna fit three kids in a two-bedroom?
CHOSEN TWO: Easy, they get one room, we get the other.
CHOSEN ONE: I think the racoon’s getting the other room and we’re sleeping in the kitchen.
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs] [sighs] …This might be the end of the world talking, but I love you.
CHOSEN ONE: I love you too.
CHOSEN TWO: …By the way, did you ever give me a page?
CHOSEN ONE: Did I ever! You got the centrefold!
CHOSEN TWO: [laughs] You ass!
CHOSEN ONE: That’s precisely what I wrote. “Cute girl with a great ass.”
CHOSEN TWO: Exactly the way I wanted to go down in the history books!
CHOSEN ONE: I… I’d give a million cycles for a couple of more weeks.
CHOSEN TWO: A million cycles is a couple of weeks.
CHOSEN ONE: You know what I mean.
CHOSEN TWO: I do. I know exactly what you mean…
…I wonder what it's gonna feel like. Is it going to be painful or is it going to be one of those thi.
ANNOUNCER: This episode of The Program was made by nine people: Finlay Stevenson, Stephan Linton, Frank Salvino, Joy Juckes, Anne Cleo Evanoff, Gwen Farbridge, Time Travel, Christien Ledroit, and IMS. Visit programaudioseries.com for more details. This episode is dedicated to all expired simulations. If you would like to prevent the show from expiring, you can throw a few cycles our way by making a donation through our website, Patreon, or Apple Podcasts. Thank you.
original art by Carlos Costa
Courtesy of Lorenz Thor