“Do you know how many iterations of Bedside Manor there have been? Billions. Literally billions. A model of Bedside Manor has existed across virtually every version of your reality, and we’ve never once had a team of people fail to beat the game. Not one time in--in case you didn’t hear me--billions. There have been cases where none of the guests spoke the same language. A team of twelve-year-olds got out of the manor in under thirty minutes. We had theorized that it was possible for a well-trained crow to execute all the necessary tasks to break out in time.”

“Well, to be fair, crows are pretty smart.”

“This was supposed to be the very last test before shifting the tech into practical application. It was a formality, really. As soon as you got through, we’d have the green light to move forward. My biggest fear was that you’d finish it too quickly and we wouldn’t get much of a show. But no, you all had to be the smartest one in the room. You couldn’t come together and share clues. You let your secrets take priority and now none of you can get your heads out of your asses enough to solve a riddle that shouldn’t have taken any more than an hour.”

“So what is this? Some kind of stress test?”

“You’re just as clever as your file implied. Yes, a stress test--the ultimate stress test. We needed to see how the program ran beyond the limits of normal operation. Participants were selected exclusively for their chaos markers: A spy, a black-hat hacker, a super genius, a complete maniac, a class one psychic at her prime, the child who would grow up to be the most proficient serial killer of his generation…”

“Wait, which one of those am I supposed to be?”

“It doesn’t matter. Now, if you don’t mind, we’re going to restart the test. This time around, please pay attention to the clues.”

“Why? The experiment is over! If your whole experiment was trying to learn if people could break the simulation, well, we figured out that it was a simulation. It doesn’t get any more broken than that. The data is corrupt and the test is no longer valid. You have to end it. If you can’t, maybe you should, I don’t know, run it up the ladder to whoever’s in charge?”

“It doesn’t work that way.”

“It might. Maybe you could let me do the talking.”
  
“Did you honestly just ask to speak with my manager, Jack?” 

“Sorry.”

 

The detective furrowed his brow, then stared at the ground for a few seconds. With a heavy sigh, he relaxed into a chair that I swear wasn’t there a moment earlier. “Do you want to guess what the hardest part was to build? It wasn’t the time dilation or the weather physics or anything like that. It was the human bodies. We spent centuries working on Maggie and Nathaniel just to make them passable, but there was something about the design of their eyes that we could never get quite right. Too far in one direction, subjects knew they weren’t human. Too far in the other direction, subjects wouldn’t stop trying to have sex with them. It was my idea to hide the eyes behind glasses. Pretty brilliant, don’t you think? That’s the extent of my practical cleverness. Where I come from, we know better than to mistake cleverness for a virtue.”

He turned his head and stared out at the fake rain. I stood there, waiting for his decision, hoping I hadn’t made a grave miscalculation. If I was right, and the detective--or whoever/whatever was in charge--decided to pull the plug, then they had to make a decision. Do they cut us free and hope we don’t tell the whole world our story? Or do they dispose of the loose ends?

Some time later, the detective spoke again. “May I ask you something?” He didn’t look at me when he said it. Instead, he kept his eyes on the fake storm.

I threw up my hands. “Of course. I have nothing better to do right now.”

“What was your favorite part of the experience?”

“My favorite? I mean, I guess the least awful part was before everyone started dying over and over.”

 

“What was the most frustrating part of the experience?”

 

“Probably dying over and over.”

 

“Fascinating. And what tipped you off that this wasn’t real?”

 

“Again. Probably the dying over and over.”

 

“Was there ever a point that made you suspect that you were dead, and that Bedside Manor was simply the afterlife?”

 

I may have answered, “No,” a little too quickly. He turned and looked me dead in the eyes. “Sorry,” I continued. “Was that what you were going for?”

 

“Quite the opposite,” he laughed. “Thanks for the feedback.”

 

“Don’t mention it.” The rain, I noticed, had begun to calm down. In fact, it seemed to settle the moment the detective looked away. “Does this mean we’re done here?” I asked hopefully.

 

He shook his head and said, “I’m getting so tired of hearing you ask me that.”

 

“Wait,” I responded. “What do you mean? I haven’t asked you this before…” Suddenly, I felt dizzy. “Have I?”

 

He didn’t answer. Before the world blinked away forever, a thought briefly flashed across my mind.

 

How many times have we done this?