18 min read
Liam leaned as far forward as the wheel allowed him. Even from that angle, all he could see was white. Thick, heavy fog curtained the world around him, and if not for the long yellow poles on both sides of the road, Liam would have ended up in a ditch a thousand times already.
He reached for his phone and poked the home button. The screen lit up, and for a short moment, the letters GPRS stood in the upper left corner. They flickered and disappeared before Liam could access the maps. He cursed and threw the phone on the passenger’s seat.
Keeping his eyes on the yellow poles, he patted his pockets, looking for his backup plan. His fingers found the soft ball of a paper napkin. Bringing it up and spreading it before him on the dashboard, he traced the vague lines that approximated the road. If he made all the right turns and hadn’t gone off-course, there would be a big mountain further away on his left and a small gorge with a stream on his right. Liam looked through the window, but only milk-white screen was there. He crossed thirty kilometres in this fog. It couldn’t be much further. Liam pushed on.
A lonely sign that plunged out of nowhere announced a road narrowing, and immediately, both the poles and an entire lane disappeared from under his car. In a gap brought by an occasional wind gust, Liam could make out a patch of the cracked tarmac, enough to keep the car from rolling off a sneaky cliff.
“I guess the unpaved roads aren’t worth mentioning,” he said when the tarmac gave way to black sand.
Small rocks launched by the tires banged on the underbelly of his car, aiming at the parts not covered by the insurance. Liam pressed his cheek to the window. The hunched back of a mossy boulder swam past his car, marking the edge of the road. It wasn’t a road anymore but a barely passable path.
“Very funny,” Liam said through his teeth and brought his car to a halt. “You got me, old man. What a prank!”
Only a gullible idiot would listen to a stranger’s babble in a roadside bistro. The most incredible place on Earth, the man said. Sure, wrapped in the impenetrable mist. An unforgettable experience, the old crook promised. Yeah, who would forget getting lost in the middle of an island in such weather? The place would blow your mind, he said. Together with all his tires if he wasn’t careful around these sharp rocks. That loony was probably laughing his arse off back in his cosy chair while Liam was putting his life on the line.
He unclasped his seatbelt and looked through the passenger’s window. A short-lived gap in the fog revealed a sharp horn of a rock reaching to scratch the side of his car. Turning around would be challenging; reversing all the way back in this fog—impossible. Liam cursed and rolled down the windows. Turn, push, stop. Forward, push, stop, turn, push. Back, push, stop, forward, crawl, stop. After an endless series of micro-adjustments, the car was finally facing the way back to civilization.
The wind tugged on the car, and something dark flashed in his rearview mirror. Liam glanced over his shoulder but saw nothing but a white blanket. He reached for his seat belt, but another flash stopped him. Something massive lay on the ground a few metres behind his car. An edge of a platform, perhaps? Could this be the place the crazy man had in mind? Liam palmed the wheel. He had just spent ten minutes turning around. What if there was nothing there, his eyes tricking him, indulging his adventure-seeking nature? Another giant volcanic rock, at best, contrasting black in this murky-white world. Or—he licked his lips—it could be it, whatever it was.
Liam switched off the engine and climbed out of the car. Silence pressed on his ears, the fog dampening the sounds with ferocious efficiency. A few uncertain steps, and the layers of white swallowed the red tail lights of his car. Hunching to see where to put his foot, Liam slowly cut through the mist.
Another step, and with no road sign warning, at least two lanes of quality asphalt stretched out from under his feet. Liam suppressed an impulse to curse out loud and stepped onto the double white line that marked the middle and disappeared into the fog.
The muffled sound of a metal bell suggested a herd animal ahead. The wind carried a faint smell of wet fur. Liam made a few careful steps and halted.
“Meeeeeh,” a goat cried, taking shape. Next to it, a figure of a man in an unbuttoned heavy coat stepped out from the fog.
“Who are you, and what are you doing here?” the man said sharply. The goat obediently waited beside his owner.
“What is this place?” Liam said, looking around. He couldn’t see the edge of the road. Four lanes, maybe?
“You don’t belong here,” the man said and took a step forward.
The animal mirrored his owner’s move. Much to his embarrassment, Liam realized it wasn’t a goat but a sheep.
“I’m sorry, I think I am lost,” he said. “I was trying to find a place I was told about—”
“It’s not a place for tourists,” the man said. “Turn around.”
“There weren’t any signs,” Liam said defensively.
The curtain between them gained some transparency, offering a glimpse of the man’s face. Liam placed him in his forties. His head was bald, and the high collar of his coat hid his ears. With a crooked bird-like nose and small angry eyes, he looked menacing. He kept the sheep in a dog’s harness.
“There’s nothing to see here. Go back,” the man said, and Liam noticed he was wearing a tuxedo under his coat.
Not knowing what to say next, Liam looked down at the yellow double line under his feet. Was it always yellow?
“What is going on here?” he asked, and the sheep responded with an annoyed bark. It wasn’t a sheep but one of those breeds you couldn’t see the dog’s eyes under all the fur tangles.
“Go back before it’s too late,” the man said. With another puff of clear air, Liam noticed he had hair after all. Short and yellow, it barely covered his scalp. Looking at Liam with his chin down, the man resembled an angry eagle.
Liam backed off. “All right, all right, I’m leaving.”
He turned around and made a few blind steps into the mist. He glanced back: the man watched his retreat until the fog obscured him and his dog.
“Meeeeeh,” the goat shouted at his back.
Liam stopped. What the hell was that animal?
You’ll know it when you see it, the old man’s words rang strong in Liam’s memory. Was this the most magical place on the planet?
Hoping to avoid the unwelcoming man, Liam made a wide turn to test the breadth of the road. Step by step, the fog uncovered more of the smooth asphalt. Liam counted seven lanes, and still, there was no end to it. What was it—an airfield? A car park?
The wind brought a soft metallic ring. If it was from a bell, it wasn’t the same bell the dog-goat was wearing. Liam waited, straining his eyes to pick out a shape. Low by the ground, a crouching figure of a grown man on a small tricycle shot at him from the mist.
“Hey there!” the man shouted, waving both his hands.
He was the same man Liam had just met, but he lost his coat and had his tuxedo pants rolled up, exposing bright pink socks. His tricycle jerked to the side, and the man caught the handles to correct his trajectory. Knees flashing higher than his elbows, he reached Liam and cycled around him.
“Can you see me?” he shouted in excitement.
Liam squinted at the man. “Where is your pet?”
“Your, uhm… Goat?”
“I’ve got no goat!” The man laughed and completed another lap. His short yellow hair blurred into white surroundings.
“But I just saw you,” Liam said, hesitation creeping into his voice.
“But I just got here!”
His eyes shone with a mischievous fire. Those weren’t the same eyes that commanded Liam to get out of this place just a few minutes ago. What was he, a twin?
“I’m Po,” the man said and extended his hand. He sat too low for Liam to shake it without stepping closer. “Are you on the team? You can tell I’m new here, don’t you? It’s so exciting!”
Not waiting for the handshake to happen, Po pushed off and rode his tricycle with his hands and bare feet in the air. A sharp turn at the last moment kept him in the visibility window.
“The team! Gee, man! What’s wrong with you?” He squinted at Liam. “Are you a native?”
“No, I’m a tourist.”
“No way!” Po sprang to his feet and pushed the tricycle away. It rolled into the fog and stopped with a soft ding of an impact. “I thought it wasn’t open yet. Did you get an early invitation? Man, I envy you. How do you like it?”
Liam looked around the fog. “I haven’t seen much yet.”
“Me neither. We testers are bound to this place.” He raised his hook nose, looking into the far as if admiring the vista.
“Is it always this foggy?” Liam asked.
Po eyed him in suspicion. “You know what this fog is for, don’t you?”
Liam managed an uncertain nod.
“The world is not rendered beyond the fog,” Po said. “Nothing’s there. And at the same time, anything is there!” He let out a soft sigh of admiration. “Such an elegant solution. I’ve already met the designer. What a legend!”
“What is this place?”
Po beckoned him closer, and Liam noticed he wore flip-flops with tiny plastic flamingo heads. Their crooked beaks echoed the shape of his nose. “Didn’t they tell you?” he whispered. “It’s a developer room.”
“A developer room?”
Po sneered as if in agreement. “They are such narcissists, aren’t they? Don’t repeat it, of course, but why call it a developer room if only testers ever come here? It should be called a tester room!” Po exploded in a burst of sincere laughter.
“What are you testing exactly?” Liam said, guarding his words.
Po shrugged. “You know, stuff. Interaction, integration, new features. This late into the pre-release, we usually check the balance, see how the latest solid objects feel like.” He clapped his hands, but the sound didn’t travel far. “Do you want to taste something?”
Without waiting for an answer, he ran into the fog. When he came back a moment later, he had a bunch of grapes in his hands.
“Where did you find them?” Liam said, accepting an offered grape.
Po motioned at the side. “I plucked them from a vine.”
“In this climate?” Liam popped the grape into his mouth. It made a juicy splash of rich, sugary flavour.
“Climate is irrelevant. Everything is possible at my request. Wait here!”
He bolted to the side, and a moment later, Liam heard the smothered roar of a starting engine. A lonely ray of light pierced the fog before a chopper rolled to carry Po in a ceremonious pose. “See? How cool is that?”
Liam gaped in awe.
“I can pull out any object,” Po bragged. “I mean, I need to explain why I did it, but it’s my first day, so I’m allowed to play around.”
Liam touched the shiny handle of the motorbike. It felt warm and dry as if it never came in contact with the tiny water droplets in the air.
“What else is there?”
“Everything this world has to offer.” Po stepped off the chopper. He lost his flip-flops, and a pair of high-top leather biker boots now completed his outfit. When did he manage to lace them all the way up?
“I haven’t studied all the specs yet,” Po said, inviting Liam to follow him into the mist, “but if it’s implemented anywhere, it can be accessed here.”
“How is that possible?”
“But I told you, the fog!” Po spread his hands and did a turn on his heel. “It obscures the unrendered world, and it allows the system to render anything before an observation.”
Liam swallowed nervously. Was this what the crazy man meant when he said it was indescribable? This entire place wasn’t static. Things appeared and disappeared before Liam could consciously notice them, details changed and objects morphed when he wasn’t looking at them directly. The bike they left behind was, quite literally perhaps, slowly dissolving into the mist.
“Are we—” Liam swallowed again. “—in a simulation?”
Po chuckled. “Of course we are. Where did you think we were, looking like this?” He glanced down at his body with a sneer.
Liam looked at himself, but he wore the same clothes he had put on this morning.
“I haven’t even created my own character yet,” Po went on. “Just grabbed the last one someone used.”
“This place is a simulation,” Liam said under his breath. In a twisted, stomach-churning way, the idea made sense. Only a controlled illusion would explain the metamorphoses he’d witnessed.
“The release is in a few months,” Po was saying, paying Liam no mind. “We need to tune everything to perfection. I thought the closed beta was weeks away, but look at you, walking here with me!”
“The release?” Liam repeated automatically.
“Don’t ask me about it, I know nothing. All I know is that the marketing department is working overtime. I hear the main attraction is that the planet is slowly going downhill while they ignore the signs. Alternative history, so to speak. Should be a blast.”
Liam stared at the ground paved with small hexagonal tiles. “The entire planet is a simulation?”
“The entire universe!” Po ran to the edge of the fog and swung his leg, producing a thump of a ball rocketing away. “I think they only populated one planet, though. Keeping it simple.”
“How long was this going on?”
“This simulation?” Po shrugged. “A year, a year and a half, perhaps. The common physics engine saves a lot of time these days. The species is nothing too creative, but it’s supposed to be about the plot, not the world-building!”
“A year and a half?” Liam said, his fingers tingling. “It doesn’t feel like this world is under two years old.”
Po laughed. “Man, of course it doesn’t. It’s made to feel like millions of years of evolution. Everything here has the unbreakable chain of personal history. The natives have detailed recollections of their entire life—generation after generation. The developers might reset it every other week, but it has to feel continuous on the inside.”
Something got lodged in Liam’s throat. He had dismissed the old man’s words as empty exaggeration, but now he could see how true they really were: nobody could remain the same after visiting this place. Would Liam himself turn into a weirdo who sat in the same spot all year round, throwing cryptic hints at nosy travellers?
“You’re playing with people’s lives,” he muttered through his teeth.
“Aren’t games meant to be played?”
“But—” Liam choked on the word. “How is that fair? What about the people—the natives, as you call them? They don’t know they are in a game.”
Po scoffed. “They are just code.”
“They have feelings,” Liam said, clenching his fists.
Po rolled his small eyes. “They think they have feelings. But they are just simplifications. This entire universe is a rough approximation of the real world.”
Peering at that smug bird face from under his brow, Liam croaked a hollow laugh. “Are you sure your world is real?”
“What a silly question!” Po’s lips stretched in a friendly grin.
“How do you know you are not a piece of code yourself?”
“You are hilarious! Comparing real people to this!” Po grabbed his tuxedo lapels and shook them, laughing.
Liam buried his chin deeper into his chest. “If you lived all your life in a simulation, how would you know you’re in it?”
“Man, you’re good!” Po slapped his hands on his thighs. “Where is this coming from?”
“Would you suspect anything if your developers didn’t leave rooms like this accessible?”
The smile on Po’s face froze. “Man, are you serious?”
“If each simulation is making an even simpler simulation, how deep do you think the recursion really goes? If you could make this”—Liam pointed a finger at his surroundings—“how likely is it that somebody more complex than you”—He moved his finger at Po—“made you?”
Two vertical creases cut through Po’s brow, extending the line of his nose. He stepped back, but Liam advanced to maintain the distance.
“Every simulation is looking down at its creation,” he went on, “dismissing it as simplistic, sure their world is the only real world.” Liam fell silent for a moment. “I wonder if Super Mario thinks his mushrooms are real.”
“Who is Super Mario?”
Liam sighed. “Just a piece of code.” He stared into the fog, his eyes unfocused. “Just like me… And probably you.”
“Just like—” Po repeated in bewilderment. “Are you…” His small eyes darted to the side. “Oh shit!”
“Look, man,” Po said, putting his hands up in a calming gesture. “I was messing with you, all right? There’s nothing special about this fog. Perhaps a little too much sulphur gases, clouding your head.”
Liam chuckled. “Yeah, right.”
“I was just waiting here—with my chopper and my tricycle and my grapes—to play a practical joke on someone. Simulation, really?” He let out a nervous giggle.
“You forgot your goat-dog.”
“What goat-dog?” Po flexed his fingers with a painful crack. “Look, man, you need to go now. It’s not safe for you to stay here, in this region. Volcanism, low oxygen. It plays tricks on your mind. You start seeing things which aren’t there.”
“Oh, don’t mind me,” Liam said, chuckling. “Do me a favour, would you? When you log off and pop back into your real world, go out and look for some remote place. Perhaps somewhere on a cold island, up in the mountains, you’ll find a more elegant solution for render-testing than a thick fog.”
“Man, you’re talking nonsense.” Po bent down to look into Liam’s face from below. “Are you feeling all right? You look pale. I think you need to lie down.” He made a small step back into a vortex of mist.
Liam reached out to grab the bastard before he disappeared, but unannounced lightheadedness made him sway and miss. Collapsing to his knees, Liam watched Po’s figure fade into white. The shapeless world swirled around him, the sudden onset of drowsiness pressing him to the ground. Fighting the heavy eyelids, he closed his eyes only for a moment, and when he opened them again, it was midday, and the fog had dissipated.
Liam lay on a patch of black sand, and a giant mountain on his left shielded him from direct sunlight. Somewhere on his right, a water stream burbled on its long run down to the ocean. There was no tarmac around Liam, and his car stood a dozen metres down the path, with the tail lights still on. Directly across the sandy clearing, a narrow column of yellow smoke puffed from under the ground. A soft, almost unperceivable breeze smelled faintly of rotten eggs.
“Nice try, Po,” Liam said, sitting up. “Really nice try.”