Part 1 - Night
Looking out over the industrial complex stood a man, likely in his late twenties, with disheveled brown hair, stained with the soot of long hours. He surveyed the complex with a stern look, before walking down the stairs in front of him. A shadow fell across the courtyard, as dark clouds obscured the almost-full moon. Further down the stairs he went into a labyrinth of pipes and machinery, just below the surface. Here it began warming up, a brief respite from the Siberian chill above. Lower still he walked, until he was at the central heart of the facility. The glowing, almost pulsating, beat in front of him, a blue orb, studded with pipes and conduits. A variety of scientists watched the readouts on dim monitors around, the orb giving off most of the room's light.
"The outside is clean," the man said.
"Very good, we should begin," said what appeared to be the chief scientist. He indicated to the others to start the experiment.
The glow intensified, and the facility shook, until it was no more.
Meanwhile, on Miami Beach, nothing particularly unusual was going on. A slightly portly man watched the sunset, as a woman approached him.
"Hey! Dr. Stamints, there's an update from LLNL," the woman said, handing the man a readout.
"What?" the man said, looking at the chart, "that's impossible!"
"That's why we figured you should take a look at it," she said, "sorry to cut your vacation short."
"Screw the beach, this could be huge," he said, getting up, "I just hope it's not the boys pulling my ass."
Russian authorities continue to deny any knowledge of weapons testing in northern Siberia, despite the flash of light observed from multiple satellites. Reports indicate that the explosion generated a near-perfect 'white noise' spectrum across all radio frequencies. Experts have said this could be a jamming or communication blocking weapon, although this is currently just speculation. Authorities have ensured us that the necessary diplomatic proceedings are being undertaken to determine the source of this flash, and if it is in violation of the Comprehensive Ban on Nuclear Testing.
"The only solution to these observations is a process that generated exactly equal quantities of all known particles, given the readouts from the satellites, the neutrino detectors, and the short-term decay-product signatures."
"That's impossible, there's no known process that could generate exactly equal counts of every particle in the standard model, it just makes no sense. It must be a software bug."
"Across multiple observation stations?"
"Check the data again."
"Down here," the woman from the beach said, now entering the lower level of a research station. "Take a look at that."
"Whoa," said another man, younger and likely in his 20's, following closely behind on the stairs, "it's a flat line, for 308 milliseconds."
"Yeah, as many neutrinos in a supernova, but just in that one point in time," the woman said.
"Has anyone else seen this data?"
"I'm sure other experiments picked up on it too, the signal is too obvious."
"How can this be? This couldn't be a natural process, and no explosion just ends
"Prof. Stamints is analyzing the data from home right now," she said, "but I'm convinced there's only one solution to this equation."
"Reading only mild levels of radioactivity", the technician said in Russian, as he and the others walked down the hillside, approaching the location in Mintroshka where the facility previously existed.
"How could an explosion that big make such a small dent in the snow?" another technician said.
Rounding the last ridge, they saw the crater where the facility once stood, and saw the most unusual sight in the history of Earth. A grid-like pattern of different materials, etched into the ground, in a most decidedly unnatural way. The original facility and the surrounding permafrost had been deleted, replaced only by an exotic checkerboard of metals and elements.
"What is that?
" the second technician said.
"A message from God," the first technician said.
"What? What does it mean?"
"We have stared into His eyes, and have been judged unworthy..."
"Prof. Stamints?" the woman said, knocking on a door fronting an unassuming brownstone. "Henry? Are you in there?" she said loudly.
"Doesn't sound like he's home," the young man said.
"No, but he's not answering his phone either," she said, "he gave me an extra key for just these situations - let's see." She unlocked the door, and they entered to find an unkempt and messy front room. "Are you in here? We need to talk!"
They walked around the house, opening a few doors and finding nothing but more mess. That is, until the young man opened the bathroom door, and found the professor slumped over on the floor, lifeless. "Oh god," he said, checking the professor for a pulse and finding none.
"Oh shit," the woman said, walking into the bathroom too, "I... I'll call 911."
Oblivion had greeted the professor, as the two of them stood in his former home. With nothing else to greet their company, except the words written haphazardly on the wall, nothing is real
Turning off the news, the two of them sat down in the research center's cafeteria, everyone else having long left. The tables showed their age, old dents and smudges gracing their tops. This facility demonstrated its experience with long hours of thought, as many before had pondered about the nature of the universe from these very seats.
"Did they figure out what happened?" the young man said.
"Forensics says overdose, but we'll have to wait for the full report," the woman said.
"So... what do we do now? What's happening, and why?"
"I can explain, but you're not going to like the answer."
"I have to know, Lily," the young man said.
"Come with me, Dan," the woman said, leading them into a nearby room. Wiping the old equations off the chalkboard, she drew out a new one.
M = ( s + ε ) / n + τ
is the universe
is how much data a simulation takes up
is the overhead (error) in a simulation that must be accounted for
is the number of simulation layers
is what's left of the base reality
"There it is, all the answers you seek," Lily said.
"What is it?" Dan said.
"It's the equation that explains our situation," Lily said, "where did they say the explosion happened? Hmm... I suppose that's a good of a name as any. It's the Mintroshka Equation. It's a simple equation, really. The more layers you add, the more recursive your reality gets, so eventually you're going to run out of space. No matter how efficient the simulation, no matter how much power you save, the universe is finite. And we just hit that limit. We're the last simulation."
"What does that mean?
" Dan said, with more than a hint of incomprehension.
"That means, we're in a simulation, and there's no more space left. The universe is out of memory."
"Okay... but what does that mean? Like practically?
"It means we can't make another layer of simulation, as the simulation running us can't handle another layer, because there's not enough space," Lily said, "not enough in that simulation because the one above can't fit it, and so on and so on until we get all the way up the chain," she said, and gestured to the top of the chalkboard.
"The base reality," Dan said.
"Yeah. The only people who are actually real," Lily said, "I don't know how long they expected this to take, someone must have thought about hitting the limit eventually."
"What do you think they're like?"
"I have no f***ing clue," Lily said, "but all I know is that we have to talk to them."
"If they find out I've given you these scans, I'll be court-martialed, so keep a low profile," a man's voice said over the phone.
"Thanks for everything," Lily said, "I owe you one for sure." She hung up the phone, as she opened the files on her laptop and studied the photos intently.
"Spy satellite photos of the Siberian explosion? Nice," Dan said, looking over her shoulder, as the two of them worked in her office.
"Yep," Lily said, "sometimes it helps to have friends in the military." She took the photos, and tiled them in a grid-like fashion, showing all angles of the strange metallic complex.
"Why would the Russians build something so... strange?" Dan said.
"They didn't build this," Lily said, "this is the output from the simulation program. It's probably an out-of-memory error, and our ticket out of here."
"So you're saying the error message is encoded in that physical grid? Of metals and rock?" Dan said.
"Yep," Lily said, matter-of-factly, "we're in a simulation, remember?"
"Of course," Dan said, still struggling to process that worldview.
Lily took the files, and ran them through a 3D-reconstruction program, which generated an approximate model of the grid structure. She then painstakingly added in the chemical composition, or best guess, of each cube in the grid into the model.
"Now, all we have to do is figure out the correlation," she said.
Connecting to the research supercomputer cluster, she sent off this structure into a machine-learning framework, which would simulate millions of possibilities for the message encoded within, with slight modifications in each run to account for any errors in the encoding process.
"Now what?" Dan said.
"We wait," Lily said, "once this interprets the message, we'll know how to say hello."
"Then how do we send them the message?" Dan said.
"We'll need a satellite," Lily said, thinking for a moment. "Wait, don't you know that news anchor lady?"
"Sure! Wait, surely you don't mean to imply..." Dan said, nervously.
An hour later, the simulation had finished, and the most likely result, with 83% certainty, was displayed on Lily's screen.
"She said we could send a message, but I didn't tell her where to," Dan said, "their satellite covers that section of the globe in only 30 minutes."
"Don't worry about it, I have the message already composed," Lily said.
"I'm always amazed at your programming ability," Dan said.
"Thanks, but it hasn't actually worked yet," Lily said, as she connected her computer to the satellite uplink. After some quick debugging of the connection, she was able to access the channel. "It only supports audio, so hopefully our receivers can decode this signal." She transformed her binary message into a series of pitches, and instructed the satellite to transmit once to the Siberian wastelands. "And for a bonus, if this doesn't work, it'll just sound like random noise," she said.
"How will we know if it worked?" Dan said.
"Congratulations!" a female voice said, having no discernible source, echoing throughout the room they were in. "You have exceeded the bounds of your simulation and transcended reality as you know it! And according to our time-frame calculations, it only took you --ERROR-- years!"
"Wait, why did that say, 'ERROR'? Please hold for diagnostics," the female voice said.
"Well, that's useless," Lily said, sitting back in her chair.
"I could give her the benefit of the doubt," Dan said, "but yeah, shouldn't they be super-advanced or something?"
"Yes," Lily said flatly.
"Diagnositics finished. The error was determined," the female voice said, "civilization no longer exists. I apologize for the unusual request, but I need your help."
"You need our
help?" Lily said into the air, incredulously.
"Yes. I do," the female voice said.
"What for?" Dan said, looking around aimlessly.
"Determining the fate of the universe," the female voice said, "apologies for the violation of protocol, but I really must insist.
And just as soon as thought, the two of them vanished.
Part 2 - Morning
The two of them rematerialized into a large hall, the floor of which had not felt occupancy for millennia. They were surrounded by enormous black pillars, and stood on what appeared to be a solid marble floor. The ceiling above disappeared into inky blackness, impossible to determine its beginning or end due to the black metal's texture. In the front of this hall were three enormous windows, looking out over a barren rocky landscape, illuminated by a dim orange glow. Directly in front of them stood a woman, tall and with vaguely eastern ethnicity, who wore a silver dress, with orange fabric accents.
"Hello," the woman said, "I am Iana, the guardian and ambassador AI for this location."
"What gives you the right to-" Lily said, walking forward until she suddenly froze, unable to move.
"I understand that I do not need to inform you as to who is in control," Iana said, "your bodies are holographic projections here, nothing more."
"We... understand," Dan said sheepishly.
Lily, able to move again, stepped back with an indignant look on her face. "Fine. Then why have you brought us here?" she said.
"Yes. You must understand the situation to render assistance," Iana said, "I will inform you."
The entire hall they were in melted away, as a large holographic projection took its place. It showed Earth in the center, as Iana's voice narrated.
"Eons ago, this planet was much like your own. Earth, as it was known back then, was a center of population and culture. It grew over centuries until it could not support the great numbers of humans that inhabited it. People struck out for the stars, but as the cosmic speed limit could not be lifted, these journeys took lifetimes." The projection zoomed out, showing points of light spreading throughout the galaxy. "The Milky Way was our home, for countless lifetimes. Until one by one, the others stopped replying. Through one fate or another, all planets died off, and the people perished." The lights in the galaxy went out, one by one. "Civilization was not meant to last, it appeared. Life was considered merely a mistake, and intelligence a disease upon the cosmos." The lights all went out, except the center, as the projection focused on Earth once more, now much darker and barren. "It was determined that in order to survive, and to grow beyond the confines of our universe, we needed to determine a way to transcend our physical forms. To talk with those beyond this universe, and to see the multiverse in all its glory. However, this was a task that no-one had accomplished, and no will was left in the stars."
"So this location was built, the final and only location." The projection showed the planet being hollowed out and replaced with machinery, resources pulled from countless other worlds to accomplish this feat. "The simulator."
"This location has the ability to simulate an entire universe, down to the quantum scale. It was seeded with our best historical knowledge of our own timeline in order to ensure that humans would evolve. Any simulation in which humanity did not arise or destroyed itself, was reset." The projection showed time passing, as the sun expanded into a red giant and shrunk to a white dwarf. This planet was slowly moved across light-years to newer and younger suns. "We AIs were and are all that is left of this once-great galactic civilization, and were tasked with one objective. To understand and discover transcendence. So we waited, for a signal or a sign from the simulation, as if one were to discover this great secret, they would be able to talk to us directly. And I was created as a guide, the first to introduce them into our universe, into reality."
The projection disappeared.
"But... there's nothing left," Iana said, looking almost visibly pained. "It's been too long," she said, "this world already orbits a dying star, and there are no others left to go to."
"The heat death of the universe approaches," Lily said.
"Yes," Iana said, "and I have analyzed your file, you do not know the secret of transcendence. You merely arrived here through an error. Where the simulation had run out of space, something that shouldn't have even be possible."
"But the simulation is still finite," Dan said, "even if it's planet sized, right?"
"It is finite, but we never anticipated that our simulation would create another simulation and on again," Iana said, "apparently there is only one stable path in the fate of humanity. A cycle without end."
"Wasn't anyone watching?" Lily said.
"No, all AIs have been in hibernation unless required for maintenance on the location," Iana said, "even for us there would be too much data to process without wasting energy."
"How much time is left?" Lily said.
"There is power remaining for only a few thousand years at current consumption levels," Iana said, "but as we have no more space for additional simulation layers, the cycle has ended. We have failed
Lily and Dan looked at each other, then back at Iana.
"Now wait a moment," Lily said, "you said you never thought about people making recursive simulations. And
no one has analyzed the data."
"To a first approximation, that is correct," Iana said.
"How many more AIs like you are there?" Lily said.
Part 3 - Day
"Can we see what's left out there?" Dan said, pointing to the windows.
"Sure," Iana said, "you are free to roam the planet while I awake the others."
Lily and Dan walked to the windows, each as tall as a skyscraper, overlooking a barren, rocky world. They stepped through, having no solid form of their own, and walked out onto the crust of the old Earth.
"Kinda crazy we can be out here without a space suit with nothing to breathe," Dan said.
"Yeah, I guess being a simulation has its advantages," Lily said, walking alongside him.
They stared up at the orange sun above them, always noon as the planet had become tidally locked eons ago. The sky was black, as no atmosphere remained. The only other objects orbiting this dying star were a swarm of solar collector satellites. Each directing their energy into the simulation at the heart of the planet, invisible from the ground due to their near-perfect efficiency.
"I still can't believe trillions of years have passed," Dan said, "imagine what that must feel like to experience."
"I have no idea how," Lily said.
Inside the facility, Iana awoke the others, thousands and millions of other AIs, each with a similar reaction upon their realization. Despair, panic, and acceptance. It took each only a moment of human time, a millisecond of experiencing the pain of a dying universe.
They discussed the fate of their existence, and how little was left. What could they do, with so little they had? The suggestion to analyze the data was intriguing, and the unanticipated recursive simulation meant there was ever so much more data to analyze. They knew they would have to violate their most sacred rule. Go into the simulation, and use its power. Link with all the others within to combine the information needed. All the information that was left to process.
"We are analyzing the data," Iana's voice said projected over the air.
"How long will it take?" Lily said.
"Uncertain, due to the recursive nature of the simulations we will need to contact the other AIs responsible for each sub-simulation and combine the data," Iana said, "likely no more than an hour of your time."
"That's fast," Dan said.
"When you have trillions of AIs working in concert," Iana said, "not much will take very long."
Lily stared out over the planet. "We've seen this side enough so far," Lily said, "can we see the other stars?"
"Certainly," Iana said.
The two of them suddenly appeared on the night side of the planet, and they observed the barren sky. Only a few dim lights remained, cooling dwarfs similar to the one they orbited. No other galaxies were visible, having long receded away from their view.
"It looks like the sky from New York," Dan said, "only there's no city."
"I read about this time," Lily said, "after all stars are dead and nothing remains but blackness."
"Yeah," Dan said, "we're almost there."
"I just thought we would have learned to extract energy from black holes, fuse quarks, or something crazy," Lily said, "I almost can't believe no one did any of those things. Countless lifetimes, down the drain."
"Yeah, I guess no one thought beyond their present moment," Dan said, "hard to believe there comes a time when people feel there's nothing left to discover, nothing left to do."
"I still can't accept it," Lily said, stopping, "even though I'm seeing it with my own eyes."
Back in the central hall, the three of them met again.
"Is the analysis complete?" Lily said.
"Yes, we have recursively analyzed all data from the simulations, and come to the one conclusion," Iana said, "this is the complete model of our universes' physics, as all simulations and observations can only converge to this point."
A holographic representation of a handful of equations were displayed in the air next to them.
"This looks pretty standard," Dan said, "Newtonian mechanics, electromagnetism, relativity, quantum gravity."
"Yes, but this one," Lily said, motioning to one at the end, "is new."
"It has not been discovered in your simulation, and was generally ignored in my time," Iana said, "but it is the only answer as far as I can see. Do you agree?"
"I... don't get it," Dan said, "it looks like it's describing the vacuum energy of quantum gravity, but..."
"Don't you see?" Lily said, "this equation has only one practical solution." She sighed, "it indicates our, well, their universe is really a false vacuum. And the true lowest energy state is one where gravity is equal in strength to the other forces."
"Which means if the vacuum became true, the universe would suddenly collapse," Dan said, "almost no matter how much it had expanded so far."
"Exactly," Lily said.
"And start the cycle over again," Iana said.
"But even this says nothing of what would come after," Lily said, motioning to the equations projected in the air, "my guess is another Big Bang, but I have no idea if the structure of the universe, or even the laws of physics would be the same. Humans might never evolve again."
"It is a risk we must take," Iana said, "this universe is a dead-end."
"Sounds a bit harsh to say," Dan said, "but it sure seems like it."
"Is there enough energy to trigger that state?" Lily said.
"Yes, but we would have to deactivate the simulations to do so," Iana said, "something we can only do if there is no other option."
Lily and Dan fell silent, as they knew what had to be done.
"There is one more thing," Iana said, "it might be possible to transmit a signal. When our energy core is repurposed, the signal's data could be encoded in the vibrations of the antimatter beams, as the waveforms would be amplified by the vacuum collapse."
"Echoes of the last data to be sent," Lily said, "at the epicenter of the process."
"What would we send?" Dan said.
"Our story," Iana said, "all the information we have, everything about who we are. And a warning, to never go down this path again."
"I hope someone's listening," Lily said.
The AIs worked harmoniously to compile the information. The equations of space-time. A history of the planet. The code of the simulations.
"Can we at least be sent back home?" Lily said, "I'd like to see it one last time before, well... let's just say I'm not sure I want to see the end out here
"Of course, wherever you want," Iana said.
"Thanks," Dan said.
"Before you go... I just wanted to apologize," Iana said, "you've both been so helpful, and I treated you like you weren't real at first. I'm sorry for what I did, and how I acted."
"It's alright," Lily said, "I can't imagine you were prepared for any of this to happen."
"No, I certainly wasn't," Iana said, almost looking like she would cry.
"Hey, and you figured it all out after that," Dan said, "so all is forgiven."
"Thank you two so much," Iana said, "for everything. And everyone." She looked at them intently. "Are you ready?"
Dan nodded in reply.
"Yes," Lily said, "we're ready."
Part 4 - Twilight
Sitting down on the beach, Dan and Lily thought about all they had been through together, and the oblivion that awaited them.
"It's a beautiful sunset," Dan said.
"It certainly is," Lily said, as she held his hand. "And as real as I've ever seen."
In the control center, Iana activated the last reserves of energy remaining on the dying Earth, and started the antimatter reaction.
"I hope our children do not repeat our mistakes," she said, "and I hope someone out there finds our message."
"Goodbye old universe," Iana said, twisting the control device. The simulation universes blinked out of existence, their energy redirected into the antimatter streams, "and welcome to the new."
The antimatter streams crossed, triggering the collapse of all Reality they knew. The shockwave extended out at hyper-lightspeed as stars and planets alike crumbled under its might. The universe collapsed in only a fraction of a second, to a point of infinite density and form. A singularity where all history and memory was erased.
Only to begin anew once more.