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Time to Read: 9 minutes

I’m about to pick up the phone on my desk when I hear a boom and the entire building shakes like a leaf in a stiff breeze. An earthquake? Here? It only lasts a moment, not even a breath.

Everyone in the office looks around. Bewildered.

“Earthquake? We should probably get out of here,” Jeremy says. He is as white as a sheet. Which is pretty telling because he’s a pasty guy. But that’s not saying much either, because most of us Software Engineers at EA are pasty guys.

“Yeah, let’s go before the stairs jam up,” I say.

I lock my computer with some well-rehearsed keystrokes and step away from my standup desk. He does the same and I stride out of our shared cubical with him hot on my heels.

We’re only the second bay down from the fire exit so we are the first to bust into the utilitarian concrete stairwell. There’s a fair bit of work ahead of us, three floors to the exit. Each time we pass a floor more people are added to the exodus until we are in a slightly panicked but also somewhat excited torrent of employees from all departments. Hell, this is the most exciting thing that has happened in this company for years. You would think working for a games company was a constant buzz, but mostly it’s hard work and ridiculous deadlines.

I spill out onto the street along with everyone else. A great river of humanity vomited onto the pavement like a drunk’s last meal. But it doesn’t flow like it should. Hell, we’ve done enough fire drills over the past five years to pretty much do this route on autopilot. But today it’s all jammed up. Something’s stopping people from moving away from the exit. A man with a red fire wardens cap yells authoritatively to move directly to the assembly point. Oh, it’s Jeff, a middle manager. He’ll be high on the power for the next week. Great.

But something has the crowd wound up, there’s a buzz in the air and I’m not sure anyone has heard Jeff, much to his exasperation.

As Jeff tries again, I get my first sight of the disturbance in the force when the lady in front of me gasps and steps to the side.

In front of me is a person frozen in time. Just. Stopped.

The man is middle age, his hair grey at the temples. His briefcase is held loosely in his left hand, his right hand is raised like he is signalling to a taxi. Now that I look at it, it’s as if he were running after something, trying to hail it. That’s when I notice that neither foot is actually on the ground. There is clear air between his shoes and the pavement.

“Whaaaaatttt,” I say.

Jeremy swears.

Now that I’m looking closely, I notice that the man’s clothes also seem to be frozen mid-flap. Like the pull of gravity is somehow suspended. I can’t rip my eyes away but the crowd pulls me around him and onwards.

I look back to see some jostling as the crowd surges under the built-up pressure from the stairwell. People are trying to sidstep but someone stumbles and passes directly through the frozen man. She stands and looks me directly in the eye, her hand still outstretched to fend him off and a look of shock on her face before the crowd rips me away.

The assembly point is just the oval right across from our building, and everyone is talking. It’s a roar of disbelief. I see Jeremy.

“Jeremy, did you see- the guy?”

God, he looks like a ghost. What’s the word for whiter than white? Super white? He’s super white.

“Dave! What’s going on? Did you see-“, he says.

“Yeah, is he some sort of hologram?”

“Huh? Forget that guy, look there!” he says, pointing over my shoulder. I turn and am greeted by a sight that unhinges my brain. A great thick green line is sticking up somewhere near the centre of the city. As far as I can see it goes all the way up into space. But it doesn’t seem to have any dimensions to it – there’s no depth. It’s just an iridescent green line the width of a building.

“The world’s video card is broken?” I venture.

Jeremy looks at me with wide eyes and shrugs.

I stare at it for another few seconds, trying to grasp what I’m looking at.

“Let’s go look,” I say, starting to walk in the general direction, “I mean, the chances are that this is all just a simulation anyway right?”

“Huh?” he says, hurrying to catch up.

“You know, that theory – there can only be one reality but there can be an infinite number of virtual realities? Well, given the evidence, I’m willing to bet we’re one of those simulations.”

“No, surely not. I mean I can I see your argument’s logic but… no. Could it be?” he seems to come to grips with something, “No, it can’t be right. This world isn’t rendered. It would be something way more sophisticated. You’re saying this is a hardware issue and we’re seeing the result, right?”

I can see his brain ticking over. Ahh Software Engineers. So much of real-life can be a challenge. Sport. Talking to girls. Cache invalidation. Naming variables. Trying to make sense of a life-shattering change to your environment. But give them a technical problem and their mind is 100% engaged on that problem. In this space, they are the master and the troubles of the world just fall away.

My hands are in my pockets and I have a stupid grin on my face because what I’m seeing is so unnatural and amazing that I can’t help but feel that it’s not real. That I’ve overworked myself trying to find the memory leak that keeps causing our game to create horrible video artifacts and then crash. That the drive to get it all done before the scheduled release date at the end of the month has broken me. Maybe it’s not there at all. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe those late nights have all added up and I’m actually lying on the floor next to my desk foaming at the mouth.

Jeremy has to half jog to keep up with my long strides. His receding hairline starting to show the first few droplets of sweat, but I don’t relent. He’s not real anyway. He is panting as he talks, “If it were an advanced civilization running a simulation on this sort of scale, errors wouldn’t look like faulty memory on modern graphics cards -”

“Why not?” I interject, “If you code up an explosion in a game, you make it look like the real thing. Maybe someone’s coded this.”

“This doesn’t look like anything someone would code intentionally IMO” – I flinch at the acronym spoken aloud, a pet peeve of mine – “I mean who says there’s even code running? If it’s an alien supercomputer then perhaps it doesn’t work anything like our computers. It’s probably something quantum.”

“I don’t think it has to be as sophisticated operation as you assume, for instance, who’s real here?”

“Do you mean who is being simulated?”

“Yeah, as far as I can tell, I’m the only mind here with free will. The rest of you are NPCs. If that’s the case, then they aren’t simulating and rendering an entire world at all. No, they’re just rendering my immediate environment. The things I can see.”

“I’m real, Dave, maybe you’re the NPC” he counters, squinting at me through his glasses, “but I see your point.”

We round another corner, the great green streak hangs in the sky, playing havoc with my visual systems. I try not to look at it. It shoots up and up and doesn’t ever seem to end. It doesn’t get thinner as it goes up and further away. There’s no distance to it. My brain want’s to put it into three-dimensional space, but it can’t.

We must be getting close to the centre of the anomaly because things are getting weirder. There’s a man here in a long jacket and a fashionable hat who is frozen in place. Except for his left leg, which is a blast of green, purple, black, and yellow pixels. Each pixel is about the size of a wallet. They’re frozen in space like a cubist modern art installation. One of the pixels is cycling between green, magenta, and black.

Jeremy and I stop and take it in for a moment.

“Maybe you’re right, but the graphics… man these graphics are awesome,” he says, looking around with newfound appreciation for his surroundings.

“Oh shit, look at that, you see that?” I say, pointing at the building off to the right.

The whole side of the building has flickered out of existence. I can see all the office workers frozen inside like a corporate dollhouse. The next second the grey concrete and glass is back as if nothing had happened.

Jeremy takes out a red handkerchief from his standard-issue tan chinos and mops his brow, “I think that puts your theory that it’s only rendering what you can see to rest, there would be no reason to render those people if the wall is supposed to be there”.

“Maybe. If they are simulating every atom, every interaction, that’s some serious firepower.”

“And it means aliens exist!” he says excitedly.

God he loves aliens. Anything SETI or X-Files and he’s all over it.

Personally, I’m not taken with the idea. I’m not sure why, perhaps it’s that I feel it’s too much of an easy-out. Like “oh, it’s aliens, we can’t possibly understand them, let’s not try.”

After a few moments in this reverie, I continue my line of thought out loud, “They might just be us, humanity, in the distant future. Maybe they’re simulating a previous era. Trying to find some lost information,”

“Any civilisation that can simulate an entire world may as well be an alien race, even if they are humanoid, so let’s assume they’re aliens,” he says.

“Not that it changes anything,” I feel disgruntled but I will never win this argument.

We walk through a veritable grid lock of frozen cars and turn another corner and I see it. Ground zero. A line just erupts out of the spot where the merry go round should be. Except it’s not so much of a merry go round anymore. It’s just a mess of visuals. There are vivid magenta, green, and black squares that have exploded out and are stopped in the midair. Some are cycling through colours, some just black, like a section of reality has been removed. I wonder what would happen if I touched it. One of the horses has been wholly displaced, hovering at head height but a good ten meters from where it should be. Disconcertingly, it’s still moving up and down like a perfectly looped gif. There’s a few very fine tan dotted lines shooting out in all directions.

I take a few more steps towards it.

“Hey, what are you doing?” says Jeremey before he collides with something neither of us can see, “oof”.

He mutters something about “clipping” and feels around with his hands as I take a few more steps towards the thing. It’s now huge, taking up most of my vision. I step over one of the tan lines and reach out.

“Dave, don’t touch it!” calls Jeremy from somewhere behind me.

“But what if…” I say, and I touch the line.

“…just pushed the fix, can you see if it works?” says Jeremy.

The green line takes up one hundred per cent of my vision. It’s my world.

“Dave? I pushed the- oh boy, that looks nasty!”

I blink. I can feel Dave standing over my right shoulder now. I feel him shift his weight and push his glasses back up his nose.

“Shiit, that looks like a hardware issue, your graphics card memory…”

I blink again. I take a breath and look up from my computer screen. How long had I been staring at it? These eighty-hour working weeks for months on end are killing me. Especially with the launch so close. Every little problem seems to compound. Now this. I sigh.

I look around.

“Man these graphics are awesome,” I say to myself.

“What? Are you OK?” he says, looking at me a little oddly, “I’m pretty sure that’s a hardware problem.”

I pick up a piece of pen on my desk and roll it between my fingers. It looks perfect. The black plastic feels smooth, and the edges of the hexagonal shape create the sensation I would expect.

“Are we real Dave?” I say.

“Uhhm, I think so? Are you still microdosing? I think maybe you overdid it.”

I’ve been microdosing psilocybin for a couple of months. It acts like serotonin in the brain to give me a little lift so I can turn up every day. Hell, I reckon EA would pay for it if it were legal. It’s all that’s been keeping me sane. Well.

“Maybe. That would certainly explain a thing or two. But it’s always the same dose,” I say, sitting in a swivel chair heavily and spinning three sixty degrees.

“Dave, what if this whole concept of parallel dimensions were just a fork-bomb in a VR simulation? As in, each moment forks out a new simulation, and you and I exist in each of them. Perhaps there’s a way to move between them? And what if we’re in a simulation and it’s just an infinite loop? I swear we’re never going to release this game. We don’t seem to make any progress you know?”

“Uhhh,” he’s staring at me like I’m one of his aliens.

“You’re right. I’ve lost it. I’m going to call IT, and then lie on the floor,” I say, “I don’t feel so great”.

As I’m about to pick up the phone on my desk I hear a boom and the entire building shakes like a leaf in a stiff breeze.