Hey, Rob here. I just read an article in The New Yorker titled “Did the Oscars Just Prove That We’re Living in a Computer Simulation?” about the recent spate of odd or unlikely occurrences, and it was full of awesome “what if?” questions about the nature of our strange-and-getting-stranger reality, so I decided to answer them with this story. Enjoy!
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Read the Story (1,900 words / 7-minute read):
“Out of the Blue”
Written and narrated by Rob Dircks
“Sir, it’s U6742b. There’s been another anomaly.”
“Oh, for crying out loud. Again? What is it this time?”
“The Best Picture Award, sir. U6742b has a ceremony called the Oscars, and the final award went to the wrong nominee. It was a cascading anomaly. First, one of the key staff was tweeting during the event, then the wrong envelope happened to–“
“Stop. Stop. I know what an anomaly is. How many has that universe had lately? And who the hell is in charge?”
Vice Oversee Hatch tapped her tablet and data sprung to brightly-colored holographic life. “Hmm. There’ve been sixteen anomalies in the past twelve months. The Miss Universe pageant mixup with Steve Harvey. Eleven inexplicable weather events including a ninety-nine degree day in Oklahoma in February. The Cubs won the World Series after a hundred and eight years. Then there was the Trump election upset, of course. And the Superbowl comeback. And now this. And it’s Baker-32, sir. He’s the attending Monitor.”
Penn growled, “Baker. I thought I already fired him.” He got up and crossed to the large window overlooking the simulation floor. “Send him in. Now.”
Hatch exited, and almost immediately, a tall, tanned Monitor with broad shoulders and a perfectly crisp uniform entered the Oversee Chamber. At one of the many large windows encircling the enormous space stood Grand Oversee Penn. Penn turned, the slightest hint of a double-take in his movement. “Ah. I expected a wrinkled shirt. Mustard stains maybe. One shoe untied. But now I remember. I didn’t fire you because you look like you know what you’re doing. So. Do you know what you’re doing?”
Finding an appropriate response unlikely, Baker simply pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and smiled.
“Let me back up, Baker. Do you have any idea how many universe simulations we’re running here?”
Baker twirled the lanyard holding his access badge around his index finger. “Forty billion.”
“Forty TRILLION, Baker. Trillion with a ‘tri.’ Listen, I don’t have time for this. If you can’t fix it, just tell me, and we’ll get someone in there that can. Or we’ll just shut it down.”
Baker’s hands shot up. “No. Please. I’m sorry sir, but it’s the Probability Modulator. Every time I have one of the engineers repair it, something else breaks. It’s almost fourteen billion years old, sir. These things don’t last forever.”
Penn glared. “You think I don’t know that? And you think I don’t know how much a new one of those costs? Probability Modulators don’t grow on trees, Baker. And the energy to run even one of these universe simulations? I’ve got to run a tight ship, Baker.” His face seemed to grow redder by the second. He pointed down to what seemed like a random location in a sea of Monitors and simulations. “Why can’t you be more like Harper? Just look at her simulation. Smooth as silk. Probability Modulator humming along perfectly. Progress.”
“You know what? I’m done talking. You’re fired. We’re shutting down U6742b. Go down there and say your goodbyes.”
“No buts.” Penn turned his back, began tapping on his tablet, and the entry to the Oversee Chamber opened. Two guards stood waiting.
Dejected, Baker spent the hundred-foot walk to the exit grieving the universe he’d been watching over for so long. He was going to miss all the species, sentient and non, but especially the humans, and especially on Earth. Yes, they did terrible, terrible things. Unspeakable things. But they also created art, and philosophy, and sports, and sitcoms, and they gave each other little golden statues for Best Picture. And beyond that, they had families, and friends, and the sound of their laughter filled his heart as well as his ears. He’d never admitted it before, but now, at the end, he allowed himself a moment of sentimentality: he loved the humans deeply. They laughed and they loved, and they had a surprising ability to find their way out of just about any–“
He had an idea.
He rushed back toward Penn, and seeing Penn’s index finger hover over a button on his tablet labeled DELETE, he lunged and yelled, “NO!” U6742b would not be deleted if he had anything to do with it. Not today.
Unfortunately, his lunge wasn’t calculated very well. Instead of knocking Penn’s hand out of the way, Baker’s arm came crashing down on top of it, and before Penn could react at all, his finger tapped DELETE and the tablet fell and skidded across the floor.
Baker curled up in a ball at Penn’s feet and began weeping.
It was over. Everything he had worked for, all the humans, all the laughter. Their entire future. Gone.
Penn looked down at him, more curious than angry. “What now?”
Baker opened his eyes. Stopped moaning. Crawled feebly over to the tablet to retrieve it for Penn. And saw this on the screen:
Are you sure you want to delete Universe U6742b?
< YES > < CANCEL >
He laughed and frantically tapped CANCEL eight times – though once would have been enough – scrambled to his feet, and bounded back to Penn, wiping the tears from his eyes. He handed Penn back his tablet with a grin. “Sir. I have an idea.”
“Forty TRILLION simulations, Baker.”
“I know. I know. Please, sir. Hear me out.”
Penn sighed. Wiped stray Baker tears from his tablet’s display. “All right. Out with it.”
“You know the purpose of the Grand Simulations, right?”
“Are you trying to school me, son?” He raised his tablet so Baker could see it, with a big DELETE button at the ready.
“Sorry, sir. But there is a point. The mission of the Grand Simulations is to inform, so decisions can be made to progress our own universe…”
“…and move us toward perfection. Yeah, yeah, I know. And we prune back the branches that are growing in the wrong direction. Like U6742b here.”
Baker raised an index finger. “Exactly. But what if… what if… we’re wrong?”
Penn’s face jerked back, as if he’d been slapped. He turned to one of the guards and nodded, and the guard trotted over and grabbed Baker by the back of his collar. Penn waved his hand, dismissing them. “Have a good life, Baker. I’ll sign off on your transfer this afternoon.”
But Baker wrestled free from the guard and knelt before Penn. “Please sir. Please!”
“Get up. Get up. You’re embarrassing yourself.” He reached out his hand, which Baker took, and raised him up. “Last chance. One minute. Go.”
“Um, okay. So the humans in this universe. The faulty Probability Modulator keeps throwing unlikely outcomes at them, extremely improbable outcomes, and if you look closely, they’re adapting. Figuring out how to deal with the unexpected. And doing a pretty damn good job of it.”
“So instead of the standard linear, forward progress optimization simulation we always do… what if we set up U6742b as a worst-case scenario simulation? Learn from them what to do when the truly unexpected happens? We’ve been very smart, sir. Very lucky. But you never know. It might be wise to have at least one in forty billio– trillion simulations act as insurance against something out of the blue.”
Penn raised an eyebrow. “So… don’t fix the Probability Modulator?”
“Exactly. Think of the savings, sir.” Penn raised his other eyebrow. Baker grinned and continued. “And if the humans help us avoid some calamity… well, I think that would shine quite a favorable light on both our positions.”
Penn’s lip curled into a little smile. “Hmm. Okay, Baker. You win. Let ’er rip.”
The next morning, on Earth, in Universe Simulation U6742b, Sue Hawkins rolled out of bed, pulled a robe on, and shuffled downstairs to wake up with some coffee and the paper before work. Bob had it ready for her, as always, and was sitting, fixated on the little TV in the corner under the cabinet. She smiled at the back of his head, then looked down to read the headline:
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO?
Historic Flub Results in Wrong Best Picture Winner
“Wow. I guess I should’ve stayed up to watch. Damn. Seems like crazy shit like that has been happening a lot lately. Right?” No answer. She looked up from the paper. “Babe?”
Bob continued to stare at the television.
In acknowledgement, Bob simply moved his head aside a few inches so Sue could see what he was watching on CNN. It was Chris Cuomo, looking flustered, reading from a single sheet of paper:
“…and the asteroid, previously undetected, is expected to collide with Earth in… is this right?” Cuomo looked off-screen as if he was hoping a producer might tell him it was all a joke. He turned back to the camera, grim. Apparently it wasn’t a joke. “Six months until impact.”
Sue spit out her coffee.
Without looking back, Bob laughed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear somebody was fucking with us.”
Exactly six months later, a chime sounded in the Oversee Chamber. Penn looked up from the simulation floor. “Yes?”
“It’s Baker-32, sir. He says it’s important.”
Penn nodded. “Let him in.”
Instantly, the entrance doors parted, and Baker rushed over to Penn, panting, sweat beads on his forehead. “Sir! There’s something-“
“Slow down, Baker. Calm down. I assume it’s the asteroid. That the humans weren’t able to survive. It’s a shame. But Baker, remember: U6742b is only a simulation. We’ll assign you to anoth–“
“No. It’s not that.”
“No. The humans survived. They devised an ingenious plan – a combination of rockets, graphene netting, and gravitational waves – to divert the asteroid just enough to save themselves. In fact, the mission was a combined effort of previously enemy nations. There’s a global peace blossoming. It’s incredible. We’ve added all the valuable data to our knowledgebase. It was a huge win. I even hear we’re both being promoted.”
“Why, that’s wonderful! You should be jumping up and down! So why are you so upset?”
“Well, during a routine inspection of the Probability Modulator…” he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metallic object, a sphere with a dozen wires of various colors protruding from it. “… my engineer found this.”
He handed the object to Penn, who examined it closely. “It’s a Pattern Recognition Circuit. I’ve seen a million of these. Easily replaced. What’s the problem?”
“It’s not one of ours.”
Penn dropped the Pattern Recognition Circuit, and the clang as it hit the floor echoed through the Oversee Chamber. He looked into Baker’s eyes, hoping it was just a joke, that Baker would laugh and pat him on back, and they’d recall this hilarious moment later when they were celebrating their mutual promotions over a drink in the cantina. But Baker’s eyes held only the truth, the unfathomable truth, an idea so out of the blue he’d never even considered it, so improbable, but now it almost made him chuckle, how insanely ironic it was, this truth. He started to say, “If it’s not ours, who’s is it?” but the words caught in his throat, because he already knew:
They were in a simulation, too.