In a Better World

“Calling it. 7:38 AM for model AI-287B-017 – fatal error. Initiating shutdown procedures.”

“No way,” Carter said, rolling his chair across the room, peering close at the shiny screen. Jones was always little too trigger-happy when it came to Shutdown. “Where?”

“There,” Jones said, gesturing to a pulsating red frequency bar. “Inevitable resource overload.”

The readout was admittedly complex, and the graphs never made as much sense to Carter as they did to the other Proctor. Jones lived for this stuff. They all did, really. Time was a finite resource just like all the other ones Earth was rapidly depleting, but unlike money or resources, it was not one the Firm could replenish. Still, a critical error was serious business. The boss was very picky about this stuff.

“The subjects are now consuming resources at a pace that outstrips the survival of the population over the long term,” Jones continued. “At this rate they’ll hit starvation by….”

“Doesn’t matter,” Carter said. “If they haven’t already self-destructed, you have to let it play out. The boss was very clear about that.”

Jones shook his head. “I don’t know why. It’s just a matter of time. We’ve run how many of these scenarios? Tell me the last time I was wrong.”

“The end stages are what he’s most interested in collecting data on. You know that.”

Jones sighed. “As much as I enjoy observing subject behavior in the face of apocalyptic doom, why aren’t we paying equal attention to the positive scenarios? You know, the ones that might actually help us?”

“I’ve thought the same thing, trust me. But that’s not what we’re getting paid to do,” Carter shrugged. “That’s the Partners’ job – it’s why we’re the ones collecting data and they’re the ones analyzing it. Look,” he said, wheeling his office chair around to face Jones. “It’s tedious. I get it. But that’s why we’re bringing in fresh meat. One of these interns will eventually hit on something we haven’t considered. They’re the best in programming and design.”

“And how many of these simulations are still running, exactly?” Jones asked with a grimace.

“Like I said, eventually we’ll get it,” Carter said, slapping Jones on the back. “It’s inevitable.”


Create a perfect world, or as near-perfect as conditions would allow: that was the certification test. Evelyn wasn’t supposed to know the prompt, but she had bribed Celia, an upperclassman, as soon as exams took place the previous year. She wasn’t supposed to know about the Firm’s Classified unit, either, but Celia had slipped her information about that, too. Evelyn was sort of amazed how far a little money would go in a world that was rapidly running out of everything else.

Earth had been teetering on the brink for some time, which was why it was now or never. Evelyn felt that Classified was her best shot at giving the planet a fighting chance. The Firm was extremely selective about who they admitted to Partner from among the interns. There had been thousands of students over the years, but only twelve Architects. She’d heard that even of those twelve, not all had been impressive enough to choose the unit they joined. That was why Evelyn had started scoping out potential prospects as soon as she had begun classes with the older students. If she had a shot at Classified, she needed as much time to prepare for the test as possible.

Classified housed the Firm’s more experimental designs. The interns weren’t supposed to know it existed, but once a few had been admitted to work on the lower-level projects, it was impossible to prevent word from getting out. Among those who worked there (and those who didn’t) fantastic tales flew back and forth about what they must be building: plasma-fueled aircraft, virtual reality pods, sentient holograms, and even augmented life of various kinds…a far cry from the bridges and tunnels the interns spent most of their time designing and modeling.

But Celia had passed on snippets on conversation that only confirmed they were attempting to build something that would get us out of here. And to Evelyn that meant one thing: terraforming. If there was one entity with the resources to do it, it was the Firm, and the situation on Earth was admittedly dire.

It was a strange time for humanity, and the Firm was no exception. They were all witnessing the downfall of their home, and for the first time in history, there was another option, possibly just within reach, possibly just beyond. If there was a time to become part of the effort, this was it.


“The Proctors will see you now,” a disembodied metallic voice crooned, and a door in the glistening white hallway slid open, revealing a small, dim room where two men in white lab coats stood waiting.

“You must be Evelyn Avery,” the shorter one said warmly, extending a rough hand. His eyes crinkled at the corners, and his smile was genuine. Evelyn shook back, stepping into the chamber and looking around. It was simpler than she had expected: everything was sterile white except for a few black screens on the far wall that beeped periodically, displaying a visual tangle of graphs and signals she couldn’t pretend to understand. There was a sleek white desk in the center of the room with three office chairs facing a single central screen.

“Come on in, kid,” the taller one said, motioning Evelyn towards a table in the center of the room with a jerk of his clean-shaven chin. “Let’s see what you can do.” He extended a stylus to Evelyn, its metallic chrome gleaming against his dark palm. Evelyn swallowed and accepted it, seating herself at the desk.

“I’m Carter,” said the shorter one, taking one of the seats behind Evelyn, “and this is Jones. We’ll be proctoring your test today. Try not to be too nervous. I know this certification is a big deal to you, but we’re more interested in observing your behavior than we are in evaluating the final product.”

“We’ve been doing this forever,” Jones said jocularly, “and no one has died from completing a test prompt. Yet!” He laughed at his own joke, and Evelyn laughed too, but it felt wooden. She knew they were about to announce the prompt. She was going to have to focus on acting surprised, while already knowing the nature of the test, knowing that this was her only shot.

“Now, I know that you and your classmates have been focusing on critical infrastructure for most of this past year,” Carter was saying. “But just for now, we want you to think a bit bigger. Today we’re going to present you with all the conditions to design an entire planetary ecosystem complete with the beginnings of life. Based on your selections we’re going to run a simulation that allows the life within that simulation to play out. You’ll be creating a microcosm – a small world.”

“We realize the concept can be a bit overwhelming when you’ve been focusing mostly on critical infrastructure with finite materials,” Jones said. “But there are a variety of units within M.E. Architects, and some of them focus on projects that are a bit grander than the typical designs. Based on your performance today, we’ll evaluate whether you might be a good fit for one of those units.”

“The conditions for success are there from the beginning of each model,” Carter said, in an attempt to be encouraging. “But like we said, we’re most interested in your choices, and how you decide to design your scenario. Today is about you, and the talents you bring to the table. Feel free to begin, whenever you’re ready.”

Evelyn swallowed and faced the screen. She watched absently as the Proctors gave her a run-through of how to use the simulation software. She’d done enough coding that the task was simple to pick up, and by the time they had finished their demonstration, she felt a bit better. You’re ready for this, she told herself, gripping the stylus. And she began.


For the better part of an hour, Evelyn worked in studied silence as the Proctors peered over her shoulders, taking notes. Every text she had read in preparation for this test passed easily into her mind as she made her selections, edited the source code, and used the stylus to dictate her choices from a variety of pre-set menus on the screen.

At various points, the Proctors asked her questions about her decisions, and made notes on the tablets they carried with them. At first she was thrown off by the questions, but as she worked, everything faded and Evelyn barely noticed them. She was captivated, enamored by the idea that the decisions she was making were weaving together a world. She envisioned her creation blooming into reality, and wondered what would feel more fulfilling: having your creations appear out of thin air as you imagined them, or getting to program them, bit by bit, within a set of complex parameters – playing by the rules, finding ways to transcend them? Both, she decided, must feel like magic.

And then, without warning, the argument streaked across Evelyn’s memory in angry reds and oranges, catching her off guard as she bent over the screen. It was the first time in days that she hadn’t actively suppressed it, the first time she hadn’t been consumed by test preparations. It stung just as it had when she’d talked with Cara most recently, perhaps more in hindsight.


“You know, I don’t even know if I know you anymore,” Cara had said. “You’re all secretive and mopey lately, you never want to talk unless it’s about this big conspiracy that you think is going on inside the Firm…”

“It’s not a conspiracy, it’s just that I don’t really know if I agree with some of their experimental projects.”

“Oh, really? Then what must you think of me, huh? You know full well that Classified has been the goal the whole time I’ve been studying. And for you, too! Now all of a sudden it’s just repulsive to you for some reason?”

“That’s not what I said…”

“You didn’t have to. You know what? You don’t need my permission to change your mind. Do whatever you want. But if you’re going to throw away all the plans we had, you might want to start looking for your own place. The lease here is up in August.”

“Ahh, c’mon, Cara! Just because I might not want to work for the Firm doesn’t mean we can’t have an apartment…” But Cara was already gone.

Fine, run away – see if I care!

But Evelyn did care. She could barely believe that Cara had been the first to abandon her when she tried to voice the suspicions eating at the back of her mind about what was going on in Classified. She would have never suspected her best friend would be the first to dismiss her. It felt like her reality had begun to unravel. At the time, even with her misgivings, hopping on a terraforming transport hadn’t seemed like the most ridiculous idea in the world.


When Evelyn had typed her final command, she lay down the stylus, and brushed the hair from her forehead. It had become clammy in the small chamber, and she hadn’t realized how feverishly she had been immersed in the task. Or maybe she had just been fighting not to lose her focus.

“Anything else?” Jones asked brightly, looking up from his tablet, his face illumined by the soft glow in the dim room.

“One thing,” Evelyn said, looking back at the screen, studying the set of parameters she was about to set in motion. “Are the subjects…aware that they’re in a simulation?”

“Ahh, a great question,” Carter said, laying his tablet on the desk and running a hand through his salt-and-pepper beard. “If it’s something you think is important to your design, you can choose to make the subjects aware. A lot of interns do. Is that what you’d like?”

“Actually, no,” Evelyn said. “The opposite. I’d like to have the subjects remain unaware. In fact, if it’s possible to prevent them from ever finding out, I’d like to set that as a parameter.”

“And you think this will enhance the success of your model?” Jones asked, making notes on his tablet.

“Well, yes,” Evelyn said. “Enhance the chances for collective long-term survival of the subjects, I mean.”

“And why do you think that is?” Carter asked.

“I just think that if you tell the subjects they’re in a simulation, then there’s a kind of…shift.”

“Can you describe this shift?”

“I just think that instead of focusing on the resources at hand, on taking care of each other, they’ll focus on the fact that they’re in a simulation. That someone is behind the scenes, controlling them. They’ll be more focused on the nature of their reality than on being present within it. And eventually they’ll either try to manipulate the simulation in their favor, or they’ll try to escape it. If I were trying to destroy a simulated world, I mean, that’s the first thing I’d tell them.”

“And what issue is there, exactly, with the subjects trying to escape?” Carter asked, setting his tablet aside.

“I mean, isn’t it obvious?” Evelyn said in disbelief. For a moment she forgot that she was operating on the pretext of joining a unit that was doing exactly what she was describing. “They’ll destroy their current world as they abandon it in hopes of making it to a new one. Once they’ve decided to leave, it’s only a matter of time until that planet dies, whether they make it out or not.”

“Even when the resources are depleting, and a better world is within reach?” Carter asked.

“Carter…” Jones chided. “It’s best to let her come up with her own reasoning…”

“Even then,” Evelyn interrupted. “You said it yourself. The conditions for success are there from the beginning. We just have to choose them. There might be a better world, but it’s in this one.”

Which was exactly why the terraforming project had to end. Which was why she had to get inside.  Had she been too plain? Did any chance remain? It barely mattered. No one seemed to care about making things better anymore; everyone just took a look at things that had started to crumble, and ran.

The Proctors were silent for a moment, exchanging a glance as Evelyn collected herself. Finally Jones cleared his throat. “We’ll note your choice about obscuring that fact, Ms. Avery. Unless you have further parameters to request for your model, your test is complete.”

Evelyn just nodded. What else was there to say?

“It can take some time to run a simulation, but once we’ve completed your scenario we’ll contact you with your scores,” Carter said, rising from his seat. He could tell she was upset. He wanted to tell her things would be alright, but realized the futility. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Avery,” he said instead. “We’ll be in touch.”

Evelyn rose from her seat and followed the Proctors to the door. She stepped out into the glistening hallway, looking down the row of doors. There were dozens of interns throughout the Firm devising dozens of alternate realities, creating their own attempts at worlds of code and chrome.

“Thank you,” she said weakly, but the chamber door had already slid shut with a final click, and she found herself alone.


The chamber remained quiet after Evelyn had exited, the screens in the corner bathing Jones’ and Carter’s faces in soft red light.

“You seemed kind of rattled there,” Jones said, rising from his seat, stretching. “Don’t take it too personally, Carter. You know we can’t tell them why we’re doing this. She said it herself. Smart kid.”

“It was just a little close to home,” Carter said, rubbing his temples. “It seems unfair – having the students produce all these simulations when it’s exactly the scenario that Classified is trying to break us out of.”

“You aren’t telling me you actually feel for those critters in the code?” Jones said, cracking his knuckles, smirking.

“Well? Who’s to say that each of those realities we’re having the interns create isn’t creating a scenarios just like the one we’re in? Only we’re the ones pulling the strings, playing God. I mean, to us, things seem real enough.”

“You know what’s real?” Jones said. “Running these tests is what they’re paying us to do. And I know it seems stupid to focus on the job with everything going to shit out there,” he said, gesturing towards the world beyond the windowless chamber. “But you can’t let every little question they ask get to you like that.”

“She has a point, doesn’t she? That’s why Classified exists,” Carter said quietly.

“Look. One day, one of these interns is going to make a flaw in their design, or program in a rule that we haven’t thought of. And the Partners will be able to exploit that to break us out of whatever twisted program has been controlling our world for so long. So we’ve just got to keep bringing them in, and watching as closely as we can. Now. We have four more of these tests to do today. Coffee?”

“Nah, I’m good,” Carter said, rubbing his temples and sitting back in his chair.

“Alright – just start running that sim, yeah? I’ll be back in five.” And he was gone.

The green ‘Start Simulation’ button was blinking on the screen, but Carter didn’t press it. It should have been easy – he’d done it a hundred times before. But there had been something different about this test, this intern.

There might be a better world, but it’s in this one.

The blinking screen washed over Carter’s features in a soft, steady pulse as he looked at the screen, not really seeing it. He sat there motionless in the dark for a long time.

Cafe Management is run by the administration of The Confabulator Cafe. We keep things running smoothly, post stories by guest authors, and manage other boring back-end tasks.

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