The adverts are compelling, but you tell yourself you only watch the show because Mary wants to. Your wife has always loved reality TV. So on day one you tune in like half the nation, and you are hooked.
The ten contestants are pretty awful, they always are on these things. But it’s different this time. When this show ends, only one of these people will survive. Though of course, sims aren’t classed as alive, not legally; if they’re not properly alive, how can they be said to survive?
There is the predictable media storm. By the end of week one, Tracey is the odds-on favourite. She isn’t smart, but she seems kind. It doesn’t hurt that she has the kind of figure the tabloids are happy to splash on the front page. Of course, the algorithms used for these Constructs are in the public domain, and the broadsheets focus on that information.
Daniel is a basic Construct, with reduced ability to delay gratification and enhanced hedonism settings. By the end of the first week, he has tried to sleep with three of the other Constructs. When the public vote is counted and he has to go, he just sits there on live TV stimulating himself. He does that right up to the moment some tech pushes a button and Daniel vanishes into the darkness forever.
The Prisoner’s mother is interviewed at the start of the week. The public falls in love with her. You’re hooked like everyone else. You watch this faded, fifty-year old woman cry over the son she is about to lose, watch her talk about which of the Constructs would make a good replacement.
She’s not transsexist, she says, but she thinks she would find it very difficult if her son came back as a woman. She knows lots of people do such things nowadays, and she’s not judging, but she would just find it difficult. As soon as she says this, Tracy’s ratings go down.
After this, Rick becomes the odds-on favourite. He can be supercilious, but he seems genuine. The media zoomed in on him when he has an argument one night with Tom about how no-one can actually know what reality is. He even says, ‘What if we’re just Sims?’ Even though he obviously means it rhetorically, everyone thinks it’s hilarious.
The week ends with Pam being voted off. Even though she’s quite nice, she is fat. The public knows what it likes, and it’s not her. Pam is gone.
At work, the show is all anyone talks about, yourself included. The Prisoner’s mother now has a regular slot. They say she’s going to be interviewed every Monday evening until there’s a winner, and she can take them home, wearing her son’s old body.
This week, the questions are mainly about the Prisoner himself. Does she think the punishment is proportional? It was a terrible thing, she says, but you can understand why he did it. It wasn’t right; but still. He was her little boy. He deserves a second chance.
The big story this week though is the activists that attempt to break into the studio where the Prisoner is being held. They want to kill him, they want to shut down the Sim. They say that Constructs should never be uploaded to wetware, it’s not natural. They fail, and two are shot dead. The studio immediately starts production on a documentary.
Tom is voted out. The public is not won over by his enhanced- humility, enhanced-vulnerability combination. Too weak. He leaves without a fuss and flares away in a puff of electrons.
Some of the papers begin to run stories about whether the Prisoner deserves this sentence. They are just speculating; the journalists are as hooked as the rest of you. You begin to think about him. You do some research, and soon you know more than most. You find yourself defending him. “He just loved his daughter,” you say. “His wife was dead,” you say. “Wouldn’t you have been tempted, in the circumstances?” People send you dirty looks, give you the cold shoulder. You don’t care.
You watch your little girl play, and you wonder, What would I do? What if Jane got sick?
You are unsure.
This week, while you watch the Constructs await the public axe, you ask your wife if you think it’s right to keep them in the dark.
“It’s better this way,” she says immediately, scandalised. “Imagine if they knew! How awful! It’s better that they just think they are on a TV show, if they think they are real. Less painful.”
She is disturbed by your question. She looks away while the votes are counted. After Hazel is deleted, you go to bed without talking.
You don’t understand leukaemia, so you do some research. It would have happened quickly. He wouldn’t have had much time to make his decision. The Prisoner’s wife had been dead already. They didn’t have health insurance. They were far too poor for that.
His work hadn’t given insurance, but what they did have was hardware. The Prisoner had worked for the studio, on one of the endless soaps. They Simmed endless plots, endless hours of garbage television. You find yourself sympathising with the Prisoner. Didn’t his daughter’s life weigh more than all those cheap characters, all those hackneyed plots?
You try to tell your wife, but she is horrified. She looks at you like she doesn’t know you. You watch the vote alone.
Kevin is out this week. He stands in the simulated departure lounge, grinning stupidly at the simulated cameras, letting the simulated applause wash over him, thinking he is about to step out to meet the crowds. He is shut down. He doesn’t feel a thing.
Your wife makes you move out, into a flat just down the road. You could have got somewhere bigger, but you want to be near Jane.
Everyone at work tries to avoid talking to you about the Prisoner. It is all you want to discuss, and you have alienated nearly everyone.
“But he told her!” some of them say, as if you don’t understand. “It’s not like he just Simmed her illegally! He actually told her she wasn’t real! That poor thing! Can you imagine?”
You can imagine. You look at Jane playing, and you can imagine too well.
Apparently, the Prisoner would stay late every night, pretending to work; really, he was talking to his daughter, Simmed on industrial equipment. They say he was only caught because the soap he was working on was running slow. The analysts worked out what was happening.
Now he is sedated, and he doesn’t know that the last days of his life are slipping away.
The week ends with Kirsty being voted out. You stare at her image on the TV in the moments before she is discontinued. You try and find a hint of the Prisoner in her eyes. You know he is there, in a Constructed form with various personality shifts digitally encoded. Kirsty vanishes. Soon, there will be a winner, and the Prisoner will be replaced.
There is a rumour. You find it on chat-rooms, whispered at the bottom of newspaper columns. The studio denies it. You can’t let it go.
The rumour is that the little girl is still alive. The rumour is that the studio never shut her down. They say that when the Prisoner was arrested, when the courts ruled that he was guilty, when they sentenced him and stripped him of his name, when they prepared him for personality modification, that the studio sued for loss of earnings. That’s how the show happened. It was an opportunity for the studios. But the girl — she was simmed on their hardware. They owned her. But they couldn’t just switch her off, because she knew, because the Prisoner had told her. She was sentient.
The rumour is that she is in the studio, alive, in darkness. Alone.
You can’t imagine what a hell that must be.
You watch the vote like everyone else. But this week, your thoughts are not on Freya as the public turns on her. You barely register when she vanishes. You have an idea.
This week there is no vote, and it is because of you.
You watch the cameras watching you back, and you know the country hates you. But you are proud. You won.
She was real. She was alive. The rumours were true.
You are in prison, and you hope that Mary will come, you hope that she will bring Jane. She doesn’t, and in your heart you are not surprised, just disappointed.
In the end, it wasn’t so hard. The big studios are always having technicians service their machines. A false code purchased on an underground website was all it took, and you were in. Their security was a joke; it didn’t take you long to find her.
They hadn’t even bothered to Sim her toys, games, anyone to play with. She was alone in a white room. You saved her on your phone, then you left and you handed yourself in.
You only care what happens to you because of Jane. But you know you did the right thing.
But that wasn’t the kicker. That wasn’t what stopped the vote.
What stopped the vote was the other thing.
The papers are going crazy. There is no way the public — or the courts — could condone the continuation of the show. Not now the constructs know.
It wasn’t Rick who believed you at first. The three of them were sitting in their lounge when your voice boomed out of the simulated speakers. Rick, with all his talk of subjectivity of perception and individual realities, couldn’t believe you when it came to the crunch. But Adam did, when you manipulated their environment, when you swapped their clothes, when you made the room vanish and replaced it with various presets, with the Eiffel Tower, with Niagara Falls. Eventually all three believed you, Adam, Rick, and Tracey. And it all happened live on air. Talk about compulsive viewing. Ratings went through the roof.
Now you are a celebrity yourself. Notorious, but adored.
Even the studio executives can’t bring themselves to hate you. Their ratings are so high, they can easily afford to put the three remaining Constructed in Simmed comfort for…well, potentially forever.
The question is, what’s going to happen to you?
The public still wants a winner. The public still wants one of the Constructs to walk out of their televisions, to win the body of the Prisoner. To win a real life.
But the Constructs are all decent. When they hear the full story, when they have gotten over the shock of it all, they all renounce that chance. Of course they do. In a way, they are him. They are the Prisoner. In a way, they all made the choice to save her. Of course they choose to save her again.
Week ten ends, and Adam, Rick, and Tracey all renounce the promise of flesh. They give it to her. They give it to his daughter. You saved her, and now she walks out of the machine, ensconced in secondhand wetware, real, alive.
She comes to see you before the end. She thanks you. She cries. She knows it was you who saved her. She wishes she could save you, but your sentence has been made. The studio will have its pound of flesh.
She promises to watch carefully. She promises she will vote for the version that is most like you.
She says goodbye, and you sit down within the scanner. The machine boots up with a deep hum. They fix a mask to your face. The gas smells sweet. Behind a thick sheet of glass, a digital lens rotates, catching your final seconds of consciousness. You know why the camera’s here, of course. You saw the adverts before the first season went out; they were much the same. You hated them — but they were effective. There was something so chilling, so compelling in them, like watching an execution. The whole world was hooked.
As the room shimmers and dims, there is a bright bolt of curiosity mixed in with the fear and the anger and the shame. What will it be like, you wonder, to be torn apart, every mote of consciousness stripped bare, suspended, accounted for? Will what is left of you sense, on some deep level, an echo of what has happened? Maybe you will shriek silently in the back of ten minds, echoing, unheard in the darkness.
You stare straight into the camera, and scream not to tune in, scream that the whole thing is sick, a madness.
But you know deep down that will only make them more desperate to watch.