by James Yu


My hands shook as bright colors fringed my vision. My synesthesia was becoming stronger, and I wasn't sure why. Maybe my body sensed that we were on the brink of a discovery here in the South Pole.

Millie held a coffee mug tight like a shield as Evan perched at the workstation, vaping even though it was forbidden in the lab. I watched the numbers slowly crawl across the screen.

We had proof that we lived in a simulation.

Double check?

Jeff, we already quadruple checked.

Sure… why not? Won’t be any different. Not unless we’ve all gone insane.

Do it again.

I looked at the cam feed overlooking the water tanks, each one a colorful polka dot peeking above the pristine snow. The detectors were arranged in a hexagonal pattern spanning a football field, as if it were a game of Chinese checkers for giants. Maybe we were insane to expect different results this time. But I’d rather know the truth than be ignorant and sane.

It was 4am, and the other scientists hadn't awakened yet. Our life in the research center had been routine for the past year—wake up, check the readings from the tanks, double check, triple check. They wouldn't let us do anything else.

Millie cleared a stack of papers with her lanky arms and put her boots up on the desk. She had been a rising star in the seismic research community, but when it came time to defend her research, she froze. Couldn't even utter a single word. She didn't find any solace that I had failed my defense as well.

I’m alerting Dr. Schwanke.

Dr. Schwanke was the only MIT professor that listened to our crazy ideas, after all, the rest of the scientists had stopped researching the simulation theory long ago. But now, it was becoming clear that sending us to the South Pole was his secret plan to get rid of us all along.

We have to be sure

Who cares? This is our last week anyway. They'll think we're making up the readings.

Don't you have any fight left in you?

Still the same. Strong lattice correlation from that last sucker. I can't believe it.

Ten minutes ago, that sucker—a lonely cosmic ray which had been traveling for 6,500 years from the Crab Nebula—impinged on a detector and emitting a shower of particles.

Damn. If we’re just some bits twiddling in some computer... might as well go rob a bank. Enjoy life.

He took another drag from his vape.

Enjoy your bits rotting in jail is more like it.

A skew implied that there was an underlying lattice constraining our universe. This was the result I'd been waiting for. But then, why was I skeptical? What was I avoiding? We slogged through bad food, freezing temperatures, and ridicule from the other researchers. I had joked that if we failed this time, I'd start researching life extension, just so I could live longer and keep pounding at the problem.

The colors had become more intense. Maybe it was the bracing cold. I’ve had synesthesia ever since I was a kid. One of my first memories was pure ribbons of colors dancing across the playground. My parents almost brought me to the emergency room, thinking that I was hallucinating. They never believed me—thought I was joking when I said 7’s had a yellow tinge or that the word dog glowed green.

But I wasn't like other synesthetes. There was no patterns to the colors. It wasn't like all the prime numbers were colored purple, or that I could use them to memorize sequences of playing cards.

I need to lay down. Getting another migraine.

Millie ignored me.

It’s smart. If the programmers had to simulate our universe, they’d put in constraints or there wouldn't be enough processing power.

It was getting harder to keep up with the conversation. Every time Millie’s mouth moved, branches of purples, greens, and cyans escaped her lips, sending tendrils that moved up her bangs, over her head, and down her neck.

One time, someone asked me if I wanted a "cure." But that’d be like cutting your nose off because you didn't like the smell of rotten eggs. The colors were beautiful, even if I didn't understand their chaos. This was the same reason why I pursued physics.

Why not go further? Make cows into spheres—isn’t that what you physicists do? Abstract things? So much data you could prune.

My phone vibrated.

Wanna talk?

Anita... We hadn't talked in years. Her words on the screen were sharp barbs on my skin. Why was she texting now? Was she finally clean? I resisted the urge to reply. I didn't want to get sucked in again.

No, they can't do that. It’s about us and our responses. If reality is simplified, so are our responses.

You’re so damn anthropocentric. There’s billions of stars. Even more planets. I’d be more interested in how they evolve. Better than watching stupid bipeds fuck and die on a backwater planet.

Geez, remind me not to enlist you in my army when the aliens invade.

Not everything is about humans.

What did you say? Calling me self-centered?

I... I didn’t say that.

No. She wasn't saying those words. Neither was Evan. And yet, I was hearing her speak. Someone speak. What the hell was happening?

Dude, you’re losing it. Go take a nap.

You look pale. Are you sick? Or maybe you took something? I know you're holding out on some blow somewhere.

I shook my head. I was dead sober.

I found myself sitting on the linoleum floor, raking my fingers across the surface. I didn’t remember if I fell. How long had I been here? Millie and Evan knelt beside me.

I'm was hearing their thoughts. But how? Did it have to do with our discovery? Were they also hearing my thoughts? Couldn't be. They weren't reacting like me. I couldn't tell them. Not yet.

I'm not dying! I must have just caught a bug.

I never said that.

Are you hearing things?

Millie fumbled in the drawer for something.

I never forced you to come with me. I asked you to.

She backed away from the desk and dropped the thermometer, sending up a loud clatter.

Are you reading my mind?

Evan went to his workstation and scrolled through the dense lines of code.

If it’s a simulation. There has to be bugs. Our universe isn’t perfect, therefore, they can’t be. Unless they’re gods. I don’t think they’re gods. Jeff—I’m thinking of a number. What is it?

You’re cheating. You’re thinking of more than one. 178?



When you're debugging, a lot of times you need access to some internal state of the program. To see into it while it's running, like if I could see your heart pumping without opening you up and killing you. But you have to add something to the code to do it. A hook. Maybe they left something in you.

That’s ridiculous.

The morning light sent long shadows breaking across the featureless white outside the window. We had been debating for hours.

How about you guys? Do you feel any different?

Exhausted. Nothing new. I don’t even remember the last time I had more than four hours of sleep.

What about you, Jeff872cee30463ece9b196?

I could see my own name hanging in the air when Evan uttered it—flickering in and out as if there was some underlying code. I felt something sharp and metal rattle through my spine.

I drew in a quick breath. Then realized I wasn’t just hearing Millie’s or Evan’s thoughts. Some of the thoughts belonged to the people on the floor above us. People had woken up, and I were making their way into the other labs. I recognized their voices.

The thoughts were coming in rapidly now.

All at once, the world seemed to fade into a mist. But I was still in the room. Evan was talking to someone in a lab coat. They appeared high above me, as if they were on a floating platform. No, that wasn't right. I was on the ground. I forgot. But part of me was elsewhere—

—in another room. Cold. Black. Unadorned. No, it was white. White and black at the same time. It was unsettling, as if my left and right eyes were seeing two different realities at once.

That is Jeff. We perceive his signature.

Yes. It's me.

This is cycle #17,839,433. Confirming now. *MUFFLE MUFFLE*

I nodded, even though I didn’t know what I was confirming. She? It? I didn’t perceive the words as sound. It felt like it was coming from my own mind.


He is hearing sentient thoughts now.

Was the seed correct?

Can you hear me?

A small number of iterations remain at this level of complexity. *MUFFLE MUFFLE*

Restarting is a possibility.

I yelled into the void. It seemed like they couldn't hear me. Did they know I could hear them? Were these the people running the simulation?

Wipe them off one by one—

Not allowed. Violation of sentient act. Abrupt change to living—

The rules are meant to be bent. Running out of time. The cost for each simulation is rising.

The shadow of myself was still in the lab. I was vaguely aware of other bodies arriving. Doctors. Someone was shining a light in my eyes. I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even tell if I was breathing. Would they send my body to my mom or would they bury me here in the snow?

If the debug takes this time. We are not sure if it has.

Does he realize the colors are tags?


I didn't understand what they meant. Then a line of words began to dance in front of my eyes. It was a diagnostics. I realized what the tags were. Each word was being colored based on some underlying identifier, like an unique ID that was assigned. Then, I realized it extended even further: we were all just objects in this simulation. We all had identifiers, from Earth to the tiniest of dust motes.

And I had the power to sense that identifier. Is that even useful? I didn't know.

Perhaps. *MUFFLE MUFFLE* This was a bad idea.

I was back in our lab. It felt like my brain was still on hyperdrive.

My phone vibrated again.

I need help.

I quickly texted back.

Are you still in Boston?

The colors took on a new meaning now. I still didn't how to decipher them, but now I knew they weren't random. I had a starting point—a basis. I stood up and looked at Millie and Evan, who both looked like they had seen ghosts. We had come a long way. It was time to tell the world about the simulation, even if they might not be ready for it.

I let the colors wash over me.