Written for the Creepypasta Random Title Writing Contest 2023. Category: Reality. Won third place.
Nick ran his fingers through his blond hair and glanced at the time on his laptop screen. Almost three AM. He had searched the web for hours for ideas, but his notepad was still blank. He was tired of shuffling insurance claims, but his plan to become a professional life coach before he turned thirty seemed further away than ever.
Over the past few months, Nick had built a modest following with his Five Steps To A Better You program. His videos had thousands of views and a few dozen people had attended his first seminar. Nick had looked perfect with a new suit and dazzling smile. Too bad he had held the seminar in the church basement; the space was affordable, but it gave the whole event the dim-fluorescent, low-ceiling feel of an AA meeting. Not exactly the vibe he was going for.
If he could make some real money, he could get out of this dump of an apartment for starters. A giant house centipede skittered across his desk. “Ugh!” He grabbed a notepad and smashed the bug. It got up and kept running. Two more hits finally killed it.
His roommate responded with a thump on the wall. “Stop it, asshole!”
“Make me,” Nick muttered while he scrolled absently down the search page. This new program had to be even better. He liked the feel of an odd number of steps. Maybe seven or nine this time. More steps meant some clients would drop off early, but others would try to stick with it to the end, even if it meant buying expensive extra coaching and problem-solving sessions. Nick smirked. With his good looks, his one-on-one sessions always went well, especially with older women.
“Back down the rabbit hole,” he said with a sigh. He typed nine steps to success in the search bar. Most hits that popped up were the same ones from his last dozen searches. A new link caught his eye. “How to Survive This Life: Nine Principles. That could be perfect.” If the list was good enough, he could save time by rewording it a bit and then claiming it as his own. There were only so many ways to tell people their shitty lives could be fixed if they tried harder.
He clicked the link. The webpage had pixelated animated clipart of a doorway with a black rabbit appearing and disappearing inside it. “Wow, this is old school.” Nick scrolled through the blinking starry background until he found words typed in a thin, cursive font.
Existence is the fact or state of being real. So how do you know if you exist? Well, there is the whole I-think-therefore-I-am business. But what if we are all in a simulation? Yes, you think, but what if those thoughts are programmed to be there? What if you have no free will? Then do you really exist? This idea is not new. From Plato to Descartes to the many movies and books written in this century, this territory has been well-covered.
The simulation idea has kept me awake many a night. Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are indeed living in a simulated world and that it’s best to live this life the way we were programmed to. We can’t fight the Programmers. All we can do is surrender all control to them and let come what may.
To this end, I have composed a list of principles to help guide us through this simulated life.
1. Accept the life you were given. The Programmers have planned everything out for you. You have no control over anything.
2. Accept your mistakes. You were programmed to be imperfect.
3. Accept change. It’s programmed into this world. Change prompts us to learn new things.
4. Accept challenges. The Programmers will push us out of our comfort zones. It’s all part of their plan (see #1).
5. Respect others. Many of them are only empty characters placed here to interact with us. We can’t know who is real.
6. Death is not the end. Your code will be reused in this simulation or another.
7. Maintain harmony. Not everyone is aware of the simulation, nor do they need to be.
8. Don’t question reality. Disrupting the simulation (becoming a bug in the code) will get you rebooted. Repeat offenses will get you deleted.
The ninth principle was blank as if the author hadn’t finished typing the list. At the bottom of the webpage was the name Alice Carpentar and a tiny photo of a sixty-ish woman with short, gray hair.
Nick whistled and closed his laptop. “Whoa… this lady is a real tin-foil-hat type.” He climbed into his creaky twin bed and waited for sleep to come, but his mind swirled with questions.
The next night, Nick had to work late. It was the third time that week. His boss apologized for the inconvenient request in a tone that said he wasn’t all that sorry. It took everything Nick had not to tell the guy to shove his request up his ass. While digging the hundredth paper jam out of the ancient copier, he wondered if Alice had written the principles as a joke—a coping mechanism for dealing with a shitty job. “Don’t question the Programmers, right?”
His coworkers trickled out of the office as the night dragged on until he was the only one left. He finished the last spreadsheet at one AM. Gathering his things to go home, he noticed dozens of tiny stuffed bunnies lined up across the desk in the next cubicle.
“Never realized Tyler was so into rabbits.” He snickered. “Maybe he’s a furry.” A porcelain figurine of a black rabbit stood next to the monitor. Nick stared at it. He turned his computer back on, printed out the Nine Principles, and slid the paper into his bag.
Waiting for the last train of the night, Nick’s breath clouded in the air; the temperature had to be around freezing. The looming skyscrapers channeled a frigid wind down the empty platform. He stamped his oxfords on the wooden planks. Something ran over his shoe. Nick jumped, expecting to see a rat. Instead, there was a fluffy black rabbit with sky-blue eyes. Its nose twitched as it hopped behind a metal trash can. It didn’t look like a wild rabbit. It had to be someone’s pet. Nick leaned over the trash can to look behind it. He yelped when a giant black rat scurried out. It stood on its hind legs and stared at Nick with blue eyes before jumping onto the tracks. A rumble announced the incoming train. As it pulled in, Nick headed for the nearest car. He stopped for a moment and glanced down the empty platform. “What the hell?”
There were three people seated at one end of the train car. Wanting to be alone, he took the cleanest-looking seat at the other end. He pulled his notebook, pen, and the paper with the principles out of his bag. He clicked his tongue and flipped the paper over and back. It hadn’t printed right. The first principle only said ‘Accept’.
“Fucking printer. Must be a sign. Seven steps it is.”
Nick numbered his notebook page from one to seven and wrote down some ideas. He stared at the last principle and tapped his pen on the page. Don’t question reality. What the hell do I change that to? he thought. Don’t question the program? Sounds like a cult. He leaned against the window and unbuttoned his wool coat. The car was stuffy, but a nice change from the bitter cold. As the lights of the city flew past, he wondered why Alice was so certain she lived in a simulation. If the so-called Programmers controlled everything, how would you even know? Nick’s mind picked up speed. If we lived in a simulation, then what was the point of anything? No one’s thoughts were their own. No one’s decisions were their own. That meant that whether he would become a life coach or be stuck at his shit job forever had already been decided for him.
Maybe he was supposed to find Alice’s website. Maybe it was all a setup to distract him and derail his plans.
The train took a sharp turn too fast, jolting Nick out of his downward spiral. He rubbed his face. “This is crazy. I need sleep,” he whispered.
The train slowed. The doors opened at the next stop, ushering in a blast of freezing air. Nick glanced up. A fluffy black rabbit hopped into the car. He looked to see if anyone else noticed the animal, but there was only one other person in the car.
A woman sat with an open laptop resting on her thighs. She could have been anywhere between twenty and forty years old. Although it was nearly two AM, she looked freshly groomed and dressed; her white suit was spotless, her blood-red lipstick flawless, and her auburn hair pulled into a perfect bun. The rabbit hopped over to the woman’s silver stiletto heels and lay on its stomach with its hind legs stretched out behind it. The woman kept typing as if she didn’t see it.
Nick approached the woman. “Excuse me. Is that your rabbit?”
She raised her head and looked at him. “Oh dear, it’s you again. Bugs, bugs, bugs,” she said, leaning down to scratch the rabbit’s head. Its blue eyes blinked lazily. She clicked away at her keyboard again and with a flourish, smashed one button. “Accept.”
Nick felt himself turn around and walk back to his seat. He tried to stop but his body ignored him. “Hey, what—”
“Sir. Sir!” A security guard shook Nick’s shoulder. “This is the last stop, you gotta get off.”
Nick rubbed his eyes. “Sorry, must’ve fallen asleep,” he mumbled. He grabbed his things and stumbled onto the platform. This wasn’t the first time he’d fallen asleep on the last train home. Lucky for him, he lived nearby so he never missed his stop. He passed a trash can on the sidewalk. An image of a black rabbit with blue eyes flashed through his mind. He leaned over the can and puked into it.
Lying in bed on a Saturday afternoon, Nick groaned. The steps for his new program had sat untouched for two weeks. Every time he looked at his notebook, he thought about the woman on the train; the feeling of not being in control of his own body made him nauseous.
“It was a dream. I need to finish the damned program!”
When he grabbed the notebook, the list of principles fell into his lap. Part of principle one was still there but three through six were now blank. Principle seven said only ‘Maintain’. Nick chewed his lip. He was pretty sure that number seven had said to keep quiet about the simulation. But if Alice really believed what she wrote, then why had she put the principles online? Didn’t that break her own rule?
He opened his laptop and searched for the Nine Principles website. It wasn’t on the first page or the next several pages either. He searched for Alice Carpentar. Zero hits. “This makes no sense.”
He could hear his roommate, Wallace, watching TV with someone in the living room. The other voice sounded like Wallace’s friend, Dina.
Nick went into the living room. “Hey, Wallace. Could you look something up for me real quick? I can’t find this website I was reading the other day.”
“What was it about?”
“Simulations and programmers. Reality.”
Wallace turned off the TV. “Reality programmers?”
“No. Some crackpot writing about how we’re all living in a simulation and the programmers with a capital P are gods or something. Pretty batshit crazy.”
“Why do you want to read that again?”
“Just help me, please.”
Wallace raised an eyebrow. “Why?”
Nick muttered something.
Nick sighed. “There was a list of steps on the site. I thought I could rework them for a new motivational program.”
“You’re gonna tell people they’re in a simulation to motivate them.” Wallace rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t pay for that.”
“I mean, I was gonna change it some… Look, I know you guys are watching a movie. It’ll only take a second.”
“You and Dina.”
Wallace frowned. “D’s working today.”
Nick scanned the apartment. Dina wasn’t in the tiny kitchen and the bathroom was dark. The coffee table had one soda and one sandwich on it.
“Can’t help you.” Wallace turned back to the TV.
“This will only take—”
“Maybe you should forget about it. The website. The program. Everything.”
Nick snapped. “Why does my existence piss you off so much?” he yelled.
Nick took a step back. “What?”
“You should forget about it,” Wallace said, staring at the black screen.
He moved between Wallace and the TV.
Wallace looked through Nick with his mouth slack.
He waved his hand in front of Wallace’s eyes. “Are you ok?”
“Maintain!” Wallace yelled.
Nick backed up, tripped over a pair of sneakers, and fell on his ass. “Ow!” He closed his eyes and rubbed his hip where it had bumped into the edge of the TV stand.
“Hey, are you ok?”
Nick’s eyes snapped open.
Dina sat on the loveseat next to Wallace. She leaned forward, looking concerned. “Do you need some ice or something?”
“God, you’re so clumsy,” Wallace said with a snort.
On the coffee table were two cans of soda and two sandwiches.
Nick stood and dashed back to his room, slamming the door behind him. He balled up the paper with the Nine Principles and threw it in the corner.
The more Nick thought about it, the more he was sure Wallace and Dina had been messing with him. Maybe Wallace had seen his list. Or Nick had mentioned it to him. The guy was always a dick.
Nick now had six solid steps, but he was still stuck on the seventh. He couldn’t decide between Setting Goals to Push Past Boundaries or Bridging the Distance Between Goals and Roadblocks. He stared through the notepad with unfocused eyes. It was so hard to think. He wasn’t sleeping enough. His boss had increased his workload until Nick was staying late every night and working on weekends, too. He had to cut his sleep to two hours a night to have any time to tackle his program. It was as if his boss was trying to prevent him from finishing it.
He shook his head. “Focus. It’s a coincidence.”
Opening a browser, he searched for motivational steps. The first hit was some kind of baking website. The second was an obituary for Alice Carpentar. Nick’s finger trembled on the trackpad. He clicked the link. The date of death was three days ago. He scanned the obituary.
Alice Pleasance Carpentar passed away from natural causes at the age of sixty. Author of the well-known baking website…
There wasn’t any mention of the Nine Principles. Nick scrolled to the end of the page. The viewing would take place tomorrow afternoon. The funeral home wasn’t far from his apartment.
“No, I’m not going. I have to go to work.” He closed his laptop and got into bed. “I have control over my life. There’s no reason to go.” He slammed his fists onto the mattress. “This is not a simulation!”
Wallace thumped on the other side of the wall. “Shut it!”
Nick banged back. “I’m in control!”
The viewing was held in a small room at the back of the funeral room. The faded green decor was probably supposed to be calming and inoffensive, but the thick carpeting and heavy drapes muffled footsteps and voices, giving Nick the feeling he was in a padded room. Several people hung around the doorway, whispering. A dozen others were spread out across the rows of folding chairs. Sweat trickled down his back. Nick had no idea what he had expected to find, but he was here, so he would quickly pay his respects and go home. Then he could use the rest of his fake sick day to catch up on sleep.
Nick headed for the silver casket. People said the dead looked peaceful, but he found them creepy in an uncanny valley sort of way. The face always looked a little off. Alice Carpentar looked like a wax dummy dressed in a tacky floral print dress. The rosary wrapped around Alice’s hands seemed like a joke. Were you praying to the Programmers? he thought. Something poking out from between her fingers caught his eye. Nick glanced around. No one paid any attention to him. He lifted the cold, heavy hand that rested on top of the other and plucked out a sheet of paper. It had been folded several times. There was no writing on the outside but the paper was rumpled like someone had balled it up and then flattened it again.
The room spun. Nick grabbed the edge of the casket.
“Are you ok?” A bald man put a hand on Nick’s shoulder.
Nick shoved the paper into his pocket. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Were you close to Alice?”
“I… followed her website.”
“Ah, Alice’s Pleasant Pies. Best pie recipes in existence, but what she was really known for was the little motivational quotes at the end of each one.”
“Uh, no. Her other website. The one about simulations and the Nine Principles.”
The man shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like Alice. Are you sure it was hers?”
“Pretty sure. Is there anyone else I could talk to about it?”
“Her sister, Edith, is over there. Maybe she would know.” The man pointed to a woman seated nearby who looked similar to Alice but a few years younger.
Nick stood next to Edith and spoke quickly. “Hello. Sorry to bother you. I followed Alice’s website. Not about the pies, the other one.”
“The other website.” Edith sighed. “The Nine Principles?”
“Yes! I had some questions for Alice but… ”
“Sit, please.” Edith gestured to the chair next to her. “My sister had some strange ideas at the end of her life. She thought we were all in a simulation created by other beings, or some such thing. I’m quite certain she had early-stage dementia. You really shouldn’t believe any of it.”
“Well, I’m doing some research. Uh, for a book.” Nick gave Edith a winning smile. “Don’t worry, it’s fiction. I just thought her theories were interesting. Did she have any books on the subject? Or maybe useful files on her computer? Anything would be helpful.”
Edith looked at him for several moments before she said, “Young man, are you questioning reality?”
Nick stared at his feet. “The truth is… yes. After reading Alice’s principles, I can’t stop thinking about it. What if she was right? What if we are in a simulation?”
“And what if we are? What would you do?”
“Try to make my life my own. Tell as many people as possible. Maybe if enough of us try to break the Programmers’ control, we’ll get their attention.”
“Then what?” Edith asked.
Nick shrugged. “I don’t know yet. But I have to do something. There has to be more to my life.”
Edith leaned close to Nick and whispered, “Don’t be like Alice. Didn’t you read her website? Questioning reality gets you rebooted. Or deleted.” She looked at the casket.
“Are you saying they deleted Alice?”
“Don’t question, little bug.” Edith smiled.
Nick jumped out of his chair.
Everyone in the room turned and stared at him. As one, they yelled, “Don’t question!”
Nick ran out of the building and down the street. After a few blocks, he leaned against a wall and loosened his tie. He couldn’t catch his breath. He pulled the paper out of his pocket. With trembling fingers, he opened it.
It was his printout of the Nine Principles. Only parts of one, seven, and eight remained.
8. Don’t question
The paper slipped from his fingers and fluttered to the ground. There was now a ninth principle.
9. You exist because we allow it
His cell phone rang again. Nick ignored it. The office was probably calling to tell him he had been fired since he hadn’t shown up in over two weeks. After Alice’s viewing, he had thrown himself into finishing his motivational program. Everything was ready; the steps, booklets, and presentation were all prepared, and the banquet hall at the local community center was reserved for the next three hours. No dingy basement this time.
Nick was perfectly groomed and wore his best suit. He set his laptop on the podium, pulled up the slides, and took a long, slow breath in and out.
The door to the banquet hall opened. People started to file in and take their seats.
Before turning on the microphone, he whispered, “I have control.”
Someone in the audience laughed. Almost all the seats were filled. The lights dimmed.
Nick beamed. “Welcome everyone. I’m very excited to take you through the Nine Steps to Change Your Fate. First, you must understand that our lives are not our own. Our fate has been carefully mapped out by one or more higher beings. They expect you to follow this path without question.” He clicked on the first slide. “Step one: Don’t accept the path that’s been laid out for you. You have control over your own life.”
Something skittered over his keyboard. Nick flinched. A giant house centipede crawled down the side of the podium and under the curtain covering the bottom. He cleared his throat and clicked to the next slide. The podium shook. Nick grabbed the sides. It shook again.
“Excuse me a moment, folks. Some technical difficulties.”
Kneeling, Nick pulled back the curtain and found himself staring into the blue eyes of a black rabbit. He fell backward.
Jumping to his feet, he seized the microphone. “We’re all in a simulation! The Programmers are trying to control us! We have to fight back!”
A hand shook his shoulder. Nick gasped.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you. Is this the Acceptance of Existence seminar?” An older woman with short, gray hair stood next to him.
“Yeah. Is this your first time?” Nick gestured to the empty chair next to him.
The woman smiled and sat down. “Yes, I’ve heard it’s wonderful. I’m so excited to be here. I’m Alice.” She held out her hand.
“Nick. This is my second… no, third time.” His smile slipped. “Sorry, I should’ve had more coffee this—” He frowned. “You look familiar. Have we met?”
Before Alice could answer, the crowd exploded into applause. A woman in a spotless white suit with impeccable auburn hair stepped up to the podium. Her blood-red lips stretched into a perfect smile. The screen behind her brightened. The words ‘Acceptance of Existence. How to Maintain an Unquestionable and Harmonious Life: A Nine Step Program’ appeared.
“Welcome, my dears! I see so many familiar faces today.”