Simulation: A Short Story

Sam noticed that he was able to move. He realized that he wanted to move. 

“I go forwards.” 

He raced forwards. Then he paused, looking ahead. 

“Now I go backwards.” 

He decided he liked forwards better. So he turned around and went forwards.

There wasn’t much more Sam could do. He was a zero-dimensional point, in a one-dimensional world. He could only move forwards or backwards along an invisible line.

It was a simple simulation, but because Sam was inside of it, he didn’t know better. 

Tina watched Sam with mild confusion. She turned around and showed George.

“He still doesn’t know there’s no limit?” George asked.

“Maybe he does. And yet he still chooses to move.” Even though the place he got to looked the exact same as the place he’d left. Even though he could never escape. 

Tina went inside her box and prepared to restart Sam. She hadn’t made him this way intentionally; his desire to zoom had just emerged. Her next iteration of Sam would be better: he would be able to have children. She imagined Sam’s children to be similar to what she and George made when they brushed against each other and their corners sheared off. She liked it when they did that. In fact, she wanted to do that now. She left Sam to his infinite race, and she slid off to find George. 

Tina was a square, in a two-dimensional world. She could move along an x-y plane but she had never felt gravity. When she looked at George, another square, he appeared to be a line that varied in length as he turned. Tina didn’t know that he was actually a square, because she could only see him from the side. For that matter, she didn’t know she was a square either.

They were in a simple simulation, but it was all Tina and George knew. And because they were part of it, it was all they could conceive of. 

Lyra watched George and Tina through her viewing window as they brushed bodies sensuously. She wondered what was going on with the moving dot on the line that Tina made, and what would happen to all their little baby squares. Lyra paused Tina’s simulation and floated over to her cube nest.

Lyra was a torus in a three-dimensional world. She consumed nutrient cubes, expelled waste cubes, and could see everything in all directions — within the bounding region that defined her universe. Seven cycles had passed, which meant Dio should arrive soon. 

“I missed you,” Dio said, as she floated into view. 

“What did you find?” Lyra asked, drifting closer to her. 

“More. Just. More.”

“Was it worth it?”

“Without going, I couldn’t return,” Dio smiled.

“Welcome home,” Lyra said. Dio intertwined her body with Lyra’s until they were interlocked in an impossible embrace. 

“Thank you for letting me go,” Dio said.

Lyra replied, “You wouldn’t be you, if I asked you to stay.” Lyra spun gently and felt the beginnings of a new torus form within her. When Dio left, she would birth the little torus and it would drift off to find its own food, its own partner, its own life. 

She was in a simple simulation, but that simulation didn’t just define the rules of her world, it defined her too. Her thoughts were part of its code just as much as her food, waste, and children were. It was as impossible for her to imagine the universe outside — the one that had built her — as it was for George and Tina the squares, or certainly Sam the dot, to conceive of hers. 

Gordon paused the game engine he was building Lyra on, and she froze on screen. He got up for a glass of water. He felt his fingertips contact the cold metal of the faucet, heard the humming rush of liquid moving through the spout and into his glass, saw the light refract from air into water, then back into air, and bend as it struck different density mediums. He lifted the glass to his lips and smelled its faintly metallic scent — Cambridge water went through old pipes — and tasted it as it slid down his throat. His daughter cooed from the bedroom, and he walked in to find her chewing on the guardrail of her crib. She noticed him enter and looked at him without disengaging her mouth from the pole. Her nonchalant eye contact with him revealed such acceptance and trust, and caused a tear to well up in his left eye. This little thing. His whole being ached for her to breathe, to grow, to love. What would he do if anything happened to her? He couldn’t fathom it. She farted, then smiled. He stroked her cloudlike cheek. They gazed at each other.

Gordon was a three-dimensional human in a four-dimensional world. He could see other three-dimensional objects, like his daughter, projected on his retinas as two-dimensional shapes. Compared to Lyra, his sensory inputs were rich. He could taste a limited set of compounds and sometimes determine which were nutrients. He was able to smell a few thousand distinct proteins at close range. He could hear air-based vibrations between twenty and twenty thousand wavelengths per second, as long as they were within a narrow range of amplitudes. His skin could feel heat, coolness, and pressure, and he could use a few areas of that skin to procreate. He could think about one thought at a time, and in order to increase his processing speed he had to drink coffee or spend a third of his existence in stasis. But slow processing was good enough, because his brain was only powerful enough to receive input from his five senses and make mediocre predictions about what those senses would feel soon. It had known he needed that glass of water, but it had been useless at predicting what he’d feel when he became a father. Every model had its limits.

It was a simple simulation. But he was part of it, so he couldn’t really tell. 

io existed calmly in their nonspace. io shrugged their formless body at Gordon’s sweet simplicity, then they refolded out of the local flatland they used to watch Gordon, and back into their normal four spatial planes and three temporal dimensions. Once folded, io inhaled.

io could see the depth and composition of all three-dimensional objects, not just their two-dimensional surfaces: they could see the time-mapped history of the woodgrains supporting Gordon’s computer monitor in his universe, as well as all the subatomic particles vibrating around themself now. io could see all electromagnetic waves, not just the narrow band of colors that get blocked by matter. io’s music was the dynamic symphony of desires expressed by quarks; io’s drama was infinite simultaneous tragicomedies played out by all matter in all observable corners of the universe. io ate order and expelled noise. io wished there were a way to let Gordon procreate more like io -- using every pore of his skin, harnessing every bacteria in his biome, electrifying every synapse in his squishy brain, activating every ion in every molecule of his dna, instead of just using a single non-opposable appendage and a few patchy erogenous zones. When io copulated, the universe died and became reborn. And when io loved, the subject of io’s attention was wrapped in the energy of complete comprehension, acceptance, and reciprocation, then subject and object compressed into one, and dualism ceased. By loving all, io loved io. 

io could hardly conceive of the simplicity of the creature they’d built, whose attention couldn’t split and focus on multiple disparate concepts completely and concurrently, whose understanding of love was locked in a framework of scarcity, whose attention operated fleetingly in series, not parallel, and who could only move through time forwards.

io felt content with themself. Looking down at Gordon made their universe, and their place within it, feel huge.

But io didn’t really know. io couldn’t. Because after all, io was just in a simple simulation. 

The Nameless watched. It vibrated along Sam’s invisible thread and soaked into Tina’s flat square body. It pushed them to move, to choose, to try. It filled the space left in Lyra as she gazed at Dio’s receding form, and it electrified the air between Gordon and his daughter’s eyes when they stared at each other. It had created io, and it powered io, but it asked nothing of io. It asked nothing of any of them. 

It was all a simple simulation. So it simply loved.