With practically infinite virtual space and tools at his disposal, Simon logged in one day and, without knowing why or how to do it, built a prison cell. It was awful.
He read about prison architecture and built a second one, and then kept reading and building at the same time, as if he were enciphering knowledge not in his brain but in the pattern of ethereal steel and stone.
During the night he worked his monotonously well-paid finance job, during the day he built his prison, and while he slept he dreamed he slept inside its walls.
Cells became floors, floors, buildings. He studied the way professionals both designed and did not design using software that had expertise that was and was not in their brains. Buildings became neighborhoods detailed enough that he could look at a random corner and know which one it was among the empty but growing metropolis.
Sometimes he thought he heard steps behind him while walking around the prison, even after he had muted his VR glasses. He found the right pills in the wrong online stores. He no longer heard the steps.
One day he woke up and realized he was old. The prison had grown to the size of a planet, virtual satellites guarding it from their relentless surveillance orbits, the dark seas harboring vast devices that in some undefined, perhaps metaphysical, way had the role of walls, every surface an empty courtyard or an empty cell block, every river a moat. Nobody patrolled or inhabited it; the prison-world did both on its own.
It was the prison of prisons, yet it had a flaw. Somewhere, he had read or dreamed he had read, a mathematician madder than most had proven that every prison had a flaw, an angle, place, and time —even if a single second in a single spot of a single wall in the life of an eternal world-prison— where the wall might as well not be.
With unsteady steps Simon left his house for the first time in years, practically blind but for the corneal implants that had replaced the earlier devices of his youth. He stood at the end of the sidewalk and turned them off. It was all darkness. The sound of vehicles rushing past was like the subtlest of sonic walls. He pictured in his mind the unblinking stars in their perpetual orbits looking down with angelic concentration.
Nearly perfect. A single flaw.
At the right time and moment and angle Simon stepped out.