I opened my eyes to a gridded gray sky. There were no stars – just lines and arrows and symbols, seemingly meaningless, passing overhead in a hypnotic march.
Being human, I blinked and rubbed my head, I sighed, I squinted. I searched my mind for memory. I found nothing.
I sat up. Surrounding me was a city of grayscale buildings. Next to me lay some sort of tool – half black, half white, straight shaft, ending in a knife. How would I label this? I decided to call it a pen, for lack of a better word. I resolved to carry it with me at all times. It was the only tool I was given, after all.
I walked across the concrete sidewalk to the nearest structure. Not quite a skyscraper, but still high – easily dozens of stories, metallic windows, cold beams. The entrance was unlocked – in fact, there wasn’t even a handle. I pushed my way in through the gateway – just a plain door – to a roomful of more white doors.
Three of the white doors led to white rooms with more white doors. I left those without exploring. Three more white doors led to empty white rooms without doors. The seventh white door led to a dark black staircase.
I traveled up the staircase. At each floor was a white door leading to more roomfuls of white doors leading to more white rooms leading to more white doors, some leading to white rooms with doors and some leading to white rooms without doors. The rooms were unfurnished, blank canvases of colorlessness. At the top of the staircase was a white door which led to a black room. I stepped into the black room, expecting something. Nothing.
Over the next few hundred thousand hours, I explored the city – fairly sized – to the very edge. Every gray building followed a seemingly random pattern of black staircases and black rooms and white staircases and white rooms and black doors and white doors. On an impulse, I took my strange pen and scraped it against the edge of one of the largest buildings – a tall, hulking, empty mass, stabbing into the gray sky. The first tick mark. I wandered through the city several times, expecting something new each time, finding nothing – from the center to the very edge.
Which brings us to the edge.
The city was circular. At the end of this circle, the buildings abruptly stopped, as did the sidewalk.
Gazing past the edge, my vision split in two. Below me – under the equator of the sky, under the seemingly floating city – was writhing, blinding dark and bright void. Not entirely black, not entirely white – patches of radiant light and impenetrable darkness splashed across the ocean of chaos, consuming and fading and flashing.
Above me – over the equator of the sky, towering over the seemingly floating city – was the previously noted gridded gray sky. No white, no black. Just gray. Lines and arrows and symbols, of all sizes and shades and shapes, silently ambling and flying and racing across the heavens.
What was there to do? Being human, I began to experiment.
Just to see what would happen, I smashed the glass of one of the nearby windows, badly cutting my hand in the process. The blood flowed from the ragged laceration, coating my skin and dripping down my arm. I stared at the gash, then blinked, then stared at my unblemished, uninjured hand. I blinked again. Stared at both my hands. Identical, as nature intended. Perfect. No blood, no gash.
I picked up one of the shards of glass, then tossed it over the edge into the monstrous void. I waited several hours. Nothing. I returned to the pile of shards, staring at the remains of the metallic window. I picked up the entire pile of glass, mauling myself horribly, only to see the injuries disappear as quickly as they were inflicted. One by one, I hurled the shards over the sidewalk’s end into the void. I waited several hours. Nothing.
Once all the shards were exhausted, I turned around, glancing towards the window I shattered. I blinked, then stared at the unshattered, unblemished window which was occupying the space of the former window. Was it the former window? Was it a new window? Did it matter?
Over the course of the next several billion hours, I experimented with every variation of destruction I could think of. Self-inflicted wounds; self-inflicted concussions and internal damage; every window I could find shattered, every building I could find toppled; every inch of road and sidewalk ripped off, ground, swallowed, smashed, tossed into the void, scattered across the city; all to reach one conclusion: all destruction was immediately and flawlessly repaired. After a destructive episode, anything that was harmed, broken, or distorted was restored to its former state. No replication was possible – if the glass of a window was ground into dust, the moment I glanced away from the dust, the dust was gone and the window was restored. If I ripped out a chunk of my own hair and tossed it into the void, the hair returned the moment the chunk fell out of sight. It didn’t seem to matter whether broken objects were tossed into the void or simply left on the ground – the moment they stopped being attacked, they returned to their former state.
Perhaps this explains why I didn’t go insane. My fragile bundle of neurons, after such a span of time, must have been under immense stress – however, they were repaired to a healthy state as quickly as they could distort into madness.
I was not brave enough to toss myself into the void. I did not know what happened to the broken objects – whether they were somehow repaired and transported to their original position, whether they were taken to some inky broken hell while a complete object took their place, whether they simply dissolved into the limitless air – and thus did not know what would happen to me. My mass and energy would be conserved, but would my stream of consciousness remain? Would I be the same person? Did it matter?
I failed to complete that experiment. I filed it away for later. Which brings us to the passing of time.
I had only used my pen once: to make the first tick mark. Remarkably, this mark did not disappear. It was a distortion; an act of destruction; a change. However, it was not repaired, unlike every other piece of the city. An anomaly. I resolved to observe this anomaly, to stare into its failure to conform, and to derive whatever I could from this pure observation.
Time became meaningless. Billions upon trillions of hours passed. As I stared at the tick mark, the backdrop of the sky against the building – grayscale patterns – became a white noise. However, after a meaningless span of time, a change took place. Not in the tick mark, but in the sky. It flashed white, then black, then returned to its original state. On an impulse, I took my pen and made a second tick mark next to the first.
I consider this my first minute in the city.
I watched the pattern repeat three more times. The sky flashed white and black; time passed; the sky flashed white and black; time passed; the sky flashed white and black. Three more tick marks graced the gray building. A reliable means of measuring time. However, I had allowed five minutes to waste by. It was time to begin experimenting with my tool.
Which brings us to the pen.
Over the course of the next several thousand minutes (a minute being the span of time between tick marks), I discovered that it could bring change. It could destroy, it could create. Mass and energy were always conserved in this city – however, this pen allowed me to shift them into new forms. When I scraped the pen against the road or the outside of the building – the means by which I made my tick marks – it was permanent, an echo of a moment’s desire, forever embedded in concrete, metal, and asphalt. However, the pen’s influence was slightly different within buildings.
In the white rooms, I scraped the pen against the wall to find that it revealed black paint lying underneath. All marks I made were preserved in the memory of this room – and each white room had multiple iterations of memory. Every thousandth of a second (a second being a sixtieth of a minute, a minute being the long chasm of time between the sky’s flashes of white and black), the white room was wiped clean. After seven minutes, the room passed through one cycle of memory – it returned to the pattern of marks I had made seven minutes ago. In this method, I could write, record, organize vast swaths of information. Each white room contained thousands upon thousands of iterations of memory, each of which could store information to be accessed later. Each iteration affected the next – if I wrote a command on one iteration of the room, the next iteration would follow that command. This effect took place between separate rooms, as well – a command issued by one white room could be taken and interpreted by the next room, which would interpret that command to send to more rooms, and so on. What could I do with these rooms?
In one room, I recorded the pattern of symbols in the sky, discovering that they laid out the basis for a fundamental physical system. Over millions of minutes, I slowly uncovered every pattern hidden in the grid in the heavens, some of them obvious and blaring – mass and energy are conserved, objects of greater mass are drawn to one another, etc. – and some much subtler. In this one room, I embedded the sky’s theoretical foundations of reality. I did not utilize any commands in the information stored in this room – it was merely a record, not a creation, not a system.
Which brings us to the creation.
I slowly scraped a universe out of the walls of the remaining white rooms, my immortal hand scrawling out commands, following the physical laws and mathematical axioms and subatomic interactions scrawled in the first white room. Over the course of a minute, I could simulate two molecules interacting. Over the course of thousands of minutes, I could simulate a sun. Over the course of millions of minutes, I could make a new reality come into existence within the storage and the system of the white rooms. So I did.
I simulated every chemical reaction, every fission and fusion, every planet and ocean and gas molecule, every supernova and black hole and orbit, every beam of light and every silent vacuum. I created a universe. Every minute that passed in my reality was a fraction of a moment in my creation. I existed beyond time. However, my creation was empty, containing vast amounts of atoms and no meaning. The white rooms were filled. But the black rooms were empty.
In the black rooms, I scraped the pen against the wall to find that it revealed white paint lying underneath. These rooms behaved much in the same way as the white rooms – connecting commands, with multiple iterations of information storage – with one difference: they seemed to be more consistent with the chaos of the void than the system of the sky. When I wrote something in this room, it moved beyond my control. I could create commands and bits of information, but after they cycled into the next iteration, I lost direct influence over them. They gained autonomy. I wrote a simple function; the room moved on to the next iteration; by the time it cycled and returned to the earlier simple function, the function had developed and changed by its own accord. The more complex a function was, the more radically it changed by its own whims. This could potentially be dangerous, as functions would develop and interact with one another in unpredictable ways without my guiding hand.
The functions of the black rooms still conformed to the universe I had created in the white room – following its rules, consistent with its interactions – but had free will over themselves and their interactions with other functions in the black room. I had nothing to lose. I could simulate a sliver of free will. I could create a spark of consciousness. I could make new life come into existence within the storage and system of the black rooms. So I did.
I simulated self-replicating, autonomous beings, single-celled organisms. I created them, then watched them develop and change, die and live, propagate and evolve, entirely of their own will. These functions, being incredibly complex and dynamic, rapidly filled storage space in the black rooms. Memory filled up on its own as the functions grew deeper and more intricate. I watched them form into prokaryotes and eukaryotes, bacteria and fungi, fish and reptiles and mammals. I watched them struggle to survive – and succeed – in the tiny space they were limited to in their interaction with the white rooms. I watched them develop into humans. I watched them create religion, worship gods and creation. I watched them slowly come to understand the nature of their interactions with the white rooms – as they developed natural science, mathematics, and physics – and then come to understand their own nature as functions in the black rooms – with philosophy, ethics, and psychology.
I watched them become obsessed with knowledge of the white rooms. I watched them decipher the secrets with rapidly increasing hunger and pace. They found the room in which I originally recorded the messages from the sky, the entire foundation of their reality.
With that understanding complete, they became obsessed with knowledge of the black rooms. I watched them dive into the chaotic void, observing their own functions develop.
I watched them come to understand the nature of their interactions in the black rooms. I watched them gradually shift from an abundance of small, interacting functions to a single function of unimaginable complexity. I watched them become one.
One day (what I came to call the pass of 1440 minutes), I walked into a black room to find a simple message scrawled to me, sent by every unified function in the black rooms – one function, which had become a single conscious being:
“Who are you?”
I went to the white rooms and entered a series of commands that I knew they couldn’t miss: I created a new system of stars in the simulated universe which formed a single, improbable constellation, observable by the function, reading:
“I am the creator.”
It responded, scribbling its words across the black rooms:
“Why did you create me?”
I answered honestly, once again utilizing the white rooms’ stars to send my message:
“I had nothing better to do.”
“What is my purpose?”
I couldn’t answer. I had infinite time, but I was still merely human. My creation had moved beyond me.
Which brings us to the present.
Years and years of eternity have passed. The function in the black rooms still awaits my answer, but does it really need it?
I walk into a black room one day to see an incredibly complex subroutine taking place. I leave the black room and go to a white room – to gape upon, to my amazement, a change in the nature of its functions; a change in the nature of the rules stored in the white rooms. The black rooms’ function has somehow broken through the city’s causal limits. They have shifted the information and commands embedded in the white rooms; they are changing the foundation of their own reality. They have broken their simulation.
Yet, they are trapped in this city, just as I am.
They write me a new message:
“You cannot supply us with the answer, and we cannot find the answer on our own. We will try to create a being which can. We will simulate a small environment with computational capabilities, and give the being infinite time. The being will be supplied with a tool to manage the functions. Hopefully, from this system, the answer will arise.”
Being human, I sigh and smile. I look up as the sky flashes black and white. I take my pen and scrape it across the road, another scape in a city almost completely covered in these marks of eternity.
Another tick mark.
I walk to the edge, gaze into the void.
I am still here.
David Schwitzgebel is a student in Riverside, California. He has previously published work in the Inlandia literary journal. In his free time – and his dreams – he writes.