“What happened then?”

“Then? When then?”

“After your client exited the elevator.”

The interviewer looks but doesn’t stare. She is indifferent, or wants me to think so, which is quite an interesting thought to explore. Maybe later.

“After the client exited the elevator I was overcome with a sense of déjà vu. I knew I’d been in this office, with this client, with my worthless partner, we’ve all been there before. And they were there, too.” I stopped. The interviewer said nothing, so we sat in silence for a bit. I pulled out a cigarette from the pack on the table, lit it and inhaled.

Eventually I continued.

“The building had six floors. They shut off the elevator, so we had to proceed down to the garage through the stairwell, then the lobby, then the second stairwell. There were a lot of them there.”

The interviewer pulled two photos from a manila binder and placed them before me.

The shots were color photographs of that day. The bodies of three men, dead, lying in pools of their own blood. The second picture was a similar macabre scene, set in the lobby, the men draped over the main reception desk. Bullet holes riddled the monitor, the chair. No sign of civilians, thankfully.

“There was a lot of resistance. Someone had it in for my client.” I put out the cigarette in the ashtray and looked at my interviewer. “At least, that’s what some video game designer wanted me to think when they designed the linear level and the boring motivation. Do they actually expect anyone to have a good time by shooting anonymous hordes by the dozens?”

“Video game?” the interviewer helpfully prodded.

“Yeah. I realized what that déjà vu was all about, but only after we’d burned through two floors of black-clad red-shirts.”

“What was it you realized?”

“That it was all a game. That I was a gun-wielding protagonist of a game, on an escort mission. I hate escort missions!” I fish out another cigarette and light up. “I figured out that there was a healthbar, weapon icons on the side, a bullet counter somewhere. It was all fake. I was replaying a level time and time again, because I’d failed to pass it on the last try.”

“What happened then?”

“Then? Then I put down my gun and sat in the closest chair there was. That’s what happened.”

“What did the client say?”

“Didn’t have much to say. My worthless partner sprung to life, as if a long-awaited promotion from second to first player just happened, and escorted the client out of the building. I just sat in that chair and listened to the sound of their passage, as they wove through the building, alternating from the east to the west side of the building at each floor. Guess the terrorists shut off every other stairwell or something like that. Told you, bad design.”

I sat and stewed for a while.

“I mean, what gives you the right to bring a full human – without their permission! – into a damn video game? And such a bad one! Couldn’t you have spawned me in a middle of a beach volleyball game?”

The interviewer opens the manila folder and offers me three more photos.

The first is my client, deceased. He’s lying on a cement surface and the number 4 is spray-painted blue on the wall by his side. It’s a stairwell, I realize, just a hundred yards from where I was sitting.

The next photo is of my partner, having suffered a similar fate. In the background I see the same reception desk as one of the previous photos.

The last is a picture of me. I’m lying on my side, a maniacal smile on my face, foamy drool dripping from between my lips. I’m clutching my weapon, lying by the black chair I remember sitting down in. The tree under which I had achieved enlightenment.

“What you remember is a false memory, implanted in you by your former partner. He killed your client, then was himself killed, likely by the men who implanted him.”

I look on the photos in front of me, then reach for the manila folder and look through it. There are more photos and several police reports. The folder is stamped with the SPD crest.

They found me stoned out of my mind, hallucinating in a building full of dead people. My boss, the VP of our protection company, was on the scene ten minutes after the cops got there. I knew a setup when I saw one. This wasn’t a video game. Why was I so sure of it just a minute ago?


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