National Illusory Simulation Department

By Emily Rose Miller

It’s warm, but damn is there a nice breeze wafting across the orange expanse of Florida beach. The sand is reflecting the brilliant purples and pinks of the sunset sky, and it even smells like salt and sunscreen. Certainly not for the first time in her life, Eliza wonders how they do it, how they make it feel so real. Her twin brother Ednel stands beside her, the crystal-clear, tepid water lapping at their feet. She looks away from the maybe-a-little-too-perfect sunset to see Ednel looking up at the sky, where the tangerines and turquoises cancel each other out almost imperceptibly. He’s not wearing the awed expression she expected. Instead, his eyebrows are drawn low towards his eyes and an unflattering crease has developed on his forehead.

“What’s wrong?” Eliza asks.

Ednel points with a stubby finger. “Some sky pixels are out.”

“Aw, shit,” Eliza says under breath.

She tilts her head to look where Ednel is pointing, and, sure enough, two white “holes” in the sky are poking through above the brilliant sunset. Man, does that kill the illusion.

“This has been happening more and more,” Eliza says, crossing her arms. “It’s getting real old.”

“I know,” says Ednel, “you’d think they woulda replaced it by now, or something.”

“It’s not that easy, dipshit,” Eliza snaps. “How do you think they’re gonna replace the entire sky just like that? And besides, there’s all the other stuff, too. We’d be living without it for Lord-knows-how-long while they changed it all out. And you can’t tell me you’d want to do that.”

“I would if it meant it’d stop getting holes,” mumbles Ednel, shuffling his feet around in the lapping water.

“Well, I wouldn’t,” Eliza says. It’s annoying enough when it goes down for short periods of time, usually no longer than thirty minutes; she can’t imagine going without it for more than a day.

Her gaze is drawn back to the sunset, the clouds around it now glowing purple as it continues to set. To her annoyance, though, it is no longer just those few pixels out toward the top of the sky. Now, massive blocks of pixels are out, looking like various objects and animals, and reminding Eliza of cloud gazing as a kid. This is less enjoyable, though. Instead of looking like puffs of cotton she could lay on all day, the blocks of failed pixels look jarring and artificial, like obnoxious fluorescent lights glaring from inside a cheap department store at eleven o’clock at night.

“Damn,” Ednel breathes when he notices it too, and just like that the sky goes out, and the rest of the simulation along with it.

Instead of an idyllic seashore and brilliant sunset, the sky is now a milky-grey from relentless smog. It hangs down over the water and makes Eliza hack and cough like a ninety year-old woman with pneumonia. Through what little sunlight is able to filter through the smog, Eliza can see oil floating slick on the top of the murky-brown ocean water where garbage isn’t bobbing like iceberg tips. It smells like shit, like after an animal has died and all the feces comes bursting out of it like she saw in a video in science class years ago.

“Dammit!” Eliza throws up her arms and steps back from the water, now that it smells so putrid. Her foot collides with a pile of trash and tens of cockroaches skitter out and run to other piles, of which there is no shortage. She lets out a noise of disgust. “Ugh, I hate this. So fucking annoying,” she says.

“Yeah,” Ednel agrees, more careful where he steps after witnessing Eliza’s mishap. “Let’s just go, it probably won’t be up again in time to watch the rest of the sunset.”

Eliza nods and rolls her eyes frustratedly. How useless is the NISD if they let the simulation crash literally almost every day? Before recently it never used to go down. Eliza guesses she’s heard on the news about the real environment getting worse and worse, so much so that the simulation isn’t strong enough to cover it anymore, but god, it’s 2118, you’d think they’d have figured out a way to make it stronger by now.

Together she and Ednel comb their way across the beach while cockroaches and rats skitter in and out of the garbage strewn across the oil-slick sand. It doesn’t occur to either of them to be anything more than annoyed. Above them floodlights buzz to life, bathing the threshold where what’s left of the beach meets the parking lot in a sickening, unnatural glow. Eliza watches moths flit manically around the bulbs like they’ll die if they don’t get to the light, only to do just that upon reaching it. She thinks how stupid they are and checks her phone for updates on when the simulation might be fixed. A moth falls dead at her feet. A cough hacks its way out of Ednel’s lungs, but neither pays it any mind.