Claire awoke in a haze. She wasn’t sure if her conversation with Aunt Vicky was a dream or the product of a late date with a second bottle of wine. She knew what she had to do to understand. She drank a small glass of courage in the form of pinot griggio and looked up Marka Swandish, her former husband’s regretful muse.
“Yeah?” answered a young male voice at the lab, yelling over a loud thumping noise.
“Hello, I’m looking for Carl Enders. Is he available, please?”
“Just a minute…Marka? Marka! Someone’s looking for Fat Carl.”
There was an audible click and the thumping stopped. The clopping of heavy heels came and a woman picked up the phone.
“Hello? This is Marka Swandish.”
“Ms Swandish, my name is Claire. I’m looking for Carl Enders.”
“You mean Fat Carl?”
“Well, no. I’m looking for Dr Enders, the physicist. He worked in your lab around 1980.”
“Yeah, Fat Carl. He was here for a few years, but that was a long time ago. I think he went back to Mexico with his family.”
Claire had spent the last few decades believing Carl was living with Marka, the woman who had tickled his brain in all the right ways before Claire left and yet here she was, calling him Fat Carl and clearly no longer involved with him. She felt foolish for not even considering Mexico, Carl’s first home and the place they’d met. He’d stopped going by Carlos before the girls were born and only spoke Spanish once a year when he’d call his mother on New Year’s Day. His sparkly grey eyes made most people forget that he used to be Carlos Méndez.
“Carl was pretty skinny when I knew him…he was…he’s…I’m his wife, Claire.”
There was a nasal laughter on the end of the line. “It was just to tell them apart, you know. Kind of a joke because the other Carlos was actually fatter than him.”
“The other Carlos?”
“Well, yeah, there were two guys in the lab named Carlos. Anyway, you said you’re his wife? I don’t get it. Why are you calling me?”
“I…I thought maybe you and Carl lived together. You know, because of your history and everything? I need to find him.”
“Look, Mrs Enders? I haven’t seen Fat Carl in a very long time. When you left, he stopped coming to work, said he needed a big change. I talked to him on the phone once and then he just dropped off the radar. He never even came for his stuff. I figured you guys got back together. I looked him up a few times to see if he was publishing. I tried Enders and Méndez, but there was nothing, which is why I figured he was back in Mexico.” After a long pause she said, “Maybe you should call the police.”
Claire could think of nothing else to say. She had always assumed that Carl would be exactly where she left him, playing house with this bitch scientist.
“Mrs Enders, why don’t you come by the lab? I still have some things of Carl’s here. Claire? Are you still there?”
“Yes, Marka. But it’s Méndez, Claire Méndez. Yes. I’ll come.” Claire glanced at the current bottle of wine and was confident that more than half remained. She wouldn’t be driving with one eye closed today. “I’ll come right now,” she added before hanging up.
It took her three hours by car. The address she’d been given was not the university lab Carl and Marka had worked at in the eighties. Dr Swandish’s workplace was not even how Claire had expected a lab to look. Everyone was dressed in jeans and sitting on couches; nary a soul ran by in a white coat. Most of them were hunched over clunky laptops. Claire wore a security badge given to her by an attendant and tried to find her way to Marka.
One minute later a great, rectangular woman pounded down the corridor in high heels–finally someone in a lab coat. Claire stared long enough to evoke the physicist’s first line. “I’m a few shades darker than you expected?” Claire knew Marka Swandish was born in Nigeria so her complexion was not a surprise, but her hair was a massive, ragged sphere of grey that dominated the room.
“Your hair-” started Claire before Marka reached out to shake her hand.
“Yes, I’m a regular black Einstein. Please don’t touch it. I hate when people touch my hair.”
She was at least six feet tall and broad enough to block doorways. Her perfectly symmetrical brown face was both beautiful and mismatched to her hulking frame. Marka led Claire down another long hallway that made her feel claustrophobic with its lack of natural light. “The server room,” offered Marka and then continued with a story about the donuts that Fat Carl used to bring to work.
They finally emerged into an archive room crammed with tables and floor-to-ceiling shelves, all overstocked with piles of yellowing paper and folders. “Carl’s over here,” she said and led Claire to a shelf that sagged in the middle from the weight of its paper burden. “This is everything he was working on when he left.”
Claire picked up a stapled document from the top of the pile and read the title aloud. ‘Chasing the Supergreen Dragon: Simulating Impossible Colors.’
“I think people read his papers, but in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge kind of way. I think Bostrom read Carl and clarified what he meant.” Marka handed her a folio by Carl entitled ‘Yes, you are Living in a Simulation.’
“A Swede. He was probably in kindergarten when Carl first published. He’s a much better speaker than Carl. Also more logical. But he’s using the same premise. He describes it as a set of 3 propositions.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”
Marka sighed. “Three possibilities. Like three little pigs: house of hay, house of sticks, house of bricks.”
“No, I know what the number 3 means, but I don’t know what Carl’s work was about.” There. She had summed up her persistent lack of interest in her husband’s life in one sentence. She looked cautiously at Marka, expecting to be chastised, but instead Marka just glanced at her watch as though she was considering whether to waste her time with Claire.
“Have a seat,” said Marka, motioning to her right. Claire saw neither a chair nor anything that could double as one so she sat on the floor in the middle of the stacks. Marka squatted next to her, hovering a few inches above the floor. “This used to be a natural human position, you know.” And Claire couldn’t help but laugh as the giant 70 year-old squatted next to her, with elbows on her knees. Carl had mentioned the same thing dozens of times and was often found reading in the squat position for hours on end. He’d insisted the girls do the same whenever they tried to sit cross-legged like they’d been advised in preschool.
“I know, Marka. I know.” Ms Swandish smiled genuinely at Claire and patted her on the knee. It almost felt grandmotherly, but this woman could only have been 10 years older than Claire, and her youthful face made the gesture seem awkward.
“Well, there are basically three possibilities, the way Bostrom sees it. Carl didn’t phrase it this way, but it makes the most sense to people. Yes, so the first possibility is that no human civilization will ever be capable of performing a simulation that is complex enough to act as a reality for what is embedded in the simulation. A reality for the sims, if you like.”
“The sims? Like Sim City?”
“Like Sim City or any other program, projection, whatever you want to call it. A simulated creation with things going on, people carrying on lives, cause and effect relationships. A sense of space.”
“It sounds like that movie, The Matrix.”
“Yes, that’s one way to look at it. But we don’t have to be ruled by computers to get there; that just makes for a good story. A simulation could be just an advanced form of virtual reality, an enhanced 3-D movie, anything like that. Anyway, the first supposition is that a Matrix-type scenario is impossible, that humans will never have the capacity of creating a sufficiently simulated existence.”
“So you and Carl thought it was impossible? Even with computers getting faster, Moore’s Law and all that?”
“Moore’s Law! Claire, why didn’t you ever talk to your husband? He loved Moore’s Law. Loved it. And no one even talked about it back when I knew him. No one except Carl. He was religious about the doubling of processor power, he thought it would lead to exponential artificial intelligence.”
“Well, I just read about it recently for a night class. Anyway, Carl and I didn’t really have a lot in common when we lived together. It was like we didn’t speak the same language, even cross paths in our daily life.”
“Well you didn’t speak the same language in the beginning, right?”
“Of course we did! I couldn’t go beyond ordering enchiladas in Spanish back then.” Claire didn’t mention that she had spent over two years hiking around South America and was now close to fluent, despite having an over-represented vocabulary of local sugar-cane spirits. “Carl and I spoke English from the time we met. And he hated when I called him Carlos. Carl’s father picked lettuce for awhile in California and then he sent Carl to a school for American brats in Mexico City. He was convinced that his only son would have a better life if he spoke English. Carl didn’t even have an accent. He always joked that his father had robbed a bank to pay for that school.”
“Did he?” said Marka with a chuckle. “Rob a bank, I mean?”
“Who knows? I don’t know. I never really knew anything about his family. He never talked about them. When he was naturalized, he changed his name to Enders. The whole thing was ridiculous because I had already taken his name when we got married. So I was more Méndez than him.” Claire stopped there with another omission: that she’d always feared Carl only married her to get his citizenship. She’d spent over 30 years trying to convince the world that she was interesting enough to wed, and in doing so was more alone than ever.
Marka thankfully circled back to her previous topic. “Anyway, the first possibility is that no simulations are technologically possible, right? Well, the second says that they are possible, but that no human civilization would ever perform them.”
“The ‘why’ is actually not important. The essential point is that humans don’t perform simulations. Or any other civilizations, aliens or whatever you want to imagine. They didn’t run full-scale simulations before, they don’t do it now and they won’t ever in the future. Even if they were capable.”
“But why? I mean, why wouldn’t they?”
“It’s just a possibility. It’s a possibility that provides comfort, resolution. It simplifies things. Because if it’s not true, then you go to possibility three.”
“That we are most definitely living in a simulation.”
Claire implored Marka to continue, not seeing the connection.
“If civilizations are capable of creating high-quality simulations and even one of them decides to go through with it, then they are essentially simulating a civilization like their own, one that is equally capable of running a simulation. When you line up two mirrors your face will go on forever, but when you create a simulation capable of creating a simulation, your whole existence is in that mirror. The sheer number of possible simulated universes would be infinite. If you were living in the real thing, it would be more than exceptional, it would be almost mathematically impossible.”
“Almost,” said Claire.
“Almost. It’s hard to wrap your head around at first, but I guarantee you’ll get more frustrated later. When you look around and feel for the first time that you might not be here, it can be liberating. Or overwhelming.”
“But that’s not science! That’s not physics, Marka. Why was Carl studying philosophy and universe chakra crap? That’s what I do! Good lord. I’m back where I started.”
And Marka was back to where she started as well, patting Claire’s knee, still hovering ridiculously close to the floor, but her dry, cracked hand didn’t bother Claire anymore.
“We both believed it, at least for a few years. I don’t know what I believe now, Claire. But when you’re captivated by something, you make your work follow it. What my team is working on now is in imaging. We’re capturing visual representations that are impossible to photograph. Images that may offer proof that our reality, our universe, is simulated.”
“You’re looking for glitches in the matrix?”
“No, we’re not looking for faults, we’re looking for perfection. Lines that are too straight, rules that can’t bend. Nature is not perfect, it’s not symmetrical. That would be the sign of a humanoid hand holding the brush.”
“It sounds like you’re looking for God, Dr Swandish.”
“Maybe we’re God, Mrs Méndez.”
Claire turned and looked right into Marka’s eyes now. Up until this point, she’d been avoiding her face, certain she’d feel hatred for the woman that had stolen Carl’s attention decades ago. “If someone is smart enough to build a simulation, wouldn’t they be able to cover it up? Make it appear real? Code in the mistakes you think it needs?”
Marka nodded at Claire. “They could. They could. But maybe they want us to find out. Maybe they think we’re ready now.”
The two aged women talked until past midnight on the floor of the archive room. Eventually they grew tired of waving their arms every 10 minutes to turn the motion-sensor lights back on and made their way back through the server room and to the front door, Claire carrying a cardboard box of Carl’s papers. The dark hallway’s twinkling lights brought back decades of Christmases and Claire slowed her steps to steep in nostalgia. Marka could feel Claire’s reluctance to leave so she guided her toward her small office just to the left of the main entrance. The walls were covered in brilliantly colored pictures, interspersed with unframed, rectangular school portraits of several children.
“The pillars of creation!” boomed Marka as Claire took in the beautiful images. “And these are my creations. Malcolm, Teila and Vicky.” Claire looked at her and her throat tightened so that she could barely be heard.
“Why?” she managed, her whole face begging Marka for an explanation she couldn’t provide.
“Why what, Claire?”
“Why is everyone named goddamned Vicky?” Claire burst into heaving sobs, taking in too much air and losing her grounding. As she started to fall, Marka squeezed her with a strength that pushed all the air back out, and with it, all the anxiety it held. Time slowed to halt and Claire remembered another lifetime when Carl joked about parallel universes over her rum-sodden breakfast. Claire prayed to Vishnu to transport this moment to one of those places: don’t let her let go. don’t let her let go.
And in a very close universe, but curled up in a dimension away from view, a prayer was answered as if it were direct command. Marka is still holding Claire, motionless, surrounded by steaming coffee cups.
Claire and Marka parted ways and promised to keep in touch.
It took Claire a week before she could go through the box from Marka. Armed with a dictionary, a Physics for Dummies website and 2 bottles of Chardonnay, she finally tackled some of Carl’s papers. She read as much as she could, until the words started to move across the pages in waves, and then concentrated the bulk of her energy on finishing the second bottle.
The second day, she tried again, this time making considerable progress, but always losing her way by the middle third of the paper. She looked through the box again, seeing if something more accessible would make itself known. There was a wad of smaller papers tied together with rubber bands, which Claire unwound out of curiosity. Most of the papers were receipts or carbon copies of equipment orders, but there was also an envelope addressed to Carl at his former lab address:
Dr Carlos Méndez, Office 32
Challen Hall Physics A
Upper Mississippi University
Minneapolis, MN 55223
The envelope had no return address and showed a postmark from 1979, the year before Claire had walked away. But inside was another, unopened envelope that must have been returned unread: