Perfect silence. Stacey, the supercomputers – the air itself stood still.

There was no hum from the server farm that surrounded us. No sound of rotating fans, no soft whoosh of the air conditioner. No motion from Stacey, no twitch or gleam or hint of awareness. Just a brilliant young woman, frozen in the moment of anticipation. Her eyes wide, her lip bit, her clipboard clutched tight, her cheeks rounded from the breath they held. But her eyes did not flicker, and her chest did not move with breath.

I took a step towards her, and reality shattered.

Along every surface, in every direction, the edges of space vanished in long, slender lines of darkness. Stace, who was only a couple of feet from me, was the most affected. The side of her nose, the outline of her torso, the air around her body – it was all sliced with a perfect black. It was as though the place I had stood was the only source of light in the universe, and it had forgotten to move with me.

I stopped moving, more out of shock than any rational thought. I glanced at the monitor – it was still stuck on the ‘Execute?’ dialog, cursor set upon that fateful ‘Yes’. I held fast, scared to so much as breathe – the Board had been right. We’d meddled with forces beyond our comprehension. We’d found … something … that was linked to the very fabric of the universe, and there was no telling what the consequences of touching it might be.

What was I even doing? Why was reality breaking before me? Should I move, or would that just tear more of these dark streaks through the world? What is happen–

The streaks vanished.

A moment’s pause, and I craned my head with the greatest care. Thin slivers of black radiated out once more, shooting from the shadows of my perspective. But Stace hadn’t moved, and nothing else had changed.

No, wait. The display. It was showing a large checkmark with a happy little worm perched on top, the ‘Execute’ dialog vanished. Replaced with our little mascot, Ernest, grinning at us with a thumbs-up. She must have programmed it in as a gag.

I would have laughed, if I wasn’t afraid to move.

I stood there, pondering what to do, when the streaks vanished again. I looked at Stacey, and while my first impression was that she hadn’t moved, that wasn’t actually entirely true. The expression of tension was in the first stages of dropping, a hint of confusion beginning to form. Her lips had parted in exhalation, her tense grip of the clipboard in the first stages of slackening.

She was moving. Time was still progressing. It was just happening unbelievably slowly.

Tell me, I prayed to some vague notion of a deity, that I didn’t just crash reality’s framerate.

No, that didn’t make any sense. We’d theorised that the universe might just be a simulation – as had every college freshman who’d seen The Matrix or smoked weed – but if it were, then I shouldn’t have been experiencing anything differently. My own processing would proceed at the same rate as reality’s, and I wouldn’t perceive any change. Instead, I was moving freely, noticing apparent gaps in…the…rendering? That shouldn’t be possible.

So, not that, but something was definitely hecked up.

I was going to need to have patience for this. Whatever was happening, time hadn’t entirely stopped. It was scary, but Stace was still alive, and still brilliant. We’d be able to work it out, or at least revert the changes. I just needed to communicate what was happening to her. It could take a long time if she was going to move as slowly as she had been – subjective days, even weeks – but there was an avenue to success.

And just as my heartrate began to behave itself, everything unfroze.

Stace, finally letting go of that breath she’d been holding, turned to me. The nascent shock that had been creeping across her features had vanished, replaced with narrowed eyes and a wry smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She looked at me through her eyelashes, head cocked slightly, and spoke in a teasing voice.

“We’ve done the test correctly,” she said. “I am interested in the results, and we should determine them immediately.” Her gaze was mischievous, her tone canny and deviant, but Stace – for all that she was a trickster sort – had been taking this experiment very seriously. We were potentially, after all, screwing with the fabric of the universe. This kind of flippant attitude didn’t make any sense.

She sauntered over to me, a daring challenge dancing in her eyes, and slid her hand onto my shoulder. Fixing me with a stare that suggested madness and excitement, she whispered “I do not observe any obvious changes in our reality. This is positive, but it is probable that any changes would not be apparent to our mammalian eyes. We should utilise the electron microscope to determine inconsistencies with our prior experiences.”

I nodded, slowly.


We left the control room to go take a look through the electron microscope. I dared to hope that we hadn’t broken anything serious, that Stacey was just playing around or having a minor stroke. My optimism did not last long – Stacey and I reached the first doorway and, in a moment of poor coordination – I’d like to blame her, but honestly it was pretty much entirely my fault – we tried to walk through at the same time.

She vibrated in place at the corner of the door for a moment, made a horrible distorting noise, and teleported into a nearby wall.

She was immediately bisected in two. Her head, upper torso, and right arm fell to the ground next to me, a look of daring and excitement still fixed on her face.

RIGHT YEAH NO FUCK THIS

I turned and sprinted back to the control room. There’d be time to theorise later, assuming I didn’t get imprisoned for realicide or something.

I reached the panel, a cheerful worm reaffirming what a great job I’d done, and reached out as it was struck by a literal lightning bolt from the sky. Didn’t matter that I was indoors, it clipped right through the ceiling and turned the whole damn interface into a sparking pile of scrap. Someone didn’t want me meddling any further. Probably God or the programmer or something. Couldn’t much blame them, really.

I sprinted out of the room. The program was backed up every evening onto an external server. This could all still be reversed. I could still fix it. Whatever changing that value had done, it could be undone.

And if these kinds of universal controls existed, maybe there was some way to manipulate time. Maybe there was a way to bring Stace back.

Don’t think about her. Don’t see her face. Don’t see her dead. She’s not dead. You made a mistake and you’re going to fix it. Just keep moving.

Out the door. Down the stairs. People dodged out of the way, avoiding the running madman. They said things like “hey!” and “watch where you’re going!” and other normal things that normal humans say when they’re busy being normal and human. I took a jump, skipping the last half-dozen stairs and landing on the marble floor. The sound of my rubber soles impacting the stone took a half-second longer to materialise than it should have. Normal. Perception’s messed up. Adrenaline. Makes things seem weird.

I ran to the revolving door. It was crammed full of people, scores if not hundreds, all walking in a continuous circle and apparently failing to work out how to escape the glass trap.

Oh no. Ohhhh no.

I looked around, trying to find another avenue of departure. A fire door lay off to the side, and even with the pumping adrenaline of the situation, I still had to take a moment to steel myself against the looming concept of being In Trouble. Steeling myself, I dashed through it and heard the alarm trip.

Everybody within my field of view, all along the overcast street, simultaneously clasped their hands to their mouths in a wide-eyed parody of shock. The exact same movements, the exact same expression.

The exact same animation.

I ran. I ran and ran and ran, dodging between people as they walked down the street, willing myself to ignore the cacophony of repetitive exclamations.

“Hey!”

“Watch where you’re going!”

“Hey!”

“Hey!”

“Watch where you’re going!”

“Watch where you’re going!”

“Watch where you’re going!”

“Hey!”

“Watch where you’re going!”

“Hey!”

“Hey!”

“Watch where you’re going!”

A man slammed his hand into me with more force than I would have thought possible. He was dressed in old, patched clothes, his greying beard scraggly and untamed. The scent of liquor and stale cigarettes radiated from him, and his eyes were held in a manic rictus.

“I AM POOR AND I REQUIRE MONEY” he…shouted? His lips spoke in small movements, but the sound that came from his mouth was deafening. Reaching into my pocket, I scooped the coins within and pressed them into his shaking, gloved hands.

“That’s my last couple bucks,” I said, with no desire but to get away. “I’ve got to go–”

A shift, a rocking, and a ripping as my pocket suddenly bulged and exploded. Hundreds upon hundreds of coins rocketed outwards, ripping a hole in the side of my pants, slamming into the ground in an evenly-spaced grid. Not a single bounce or ricochet – they merely landed and stopped, still as the grave.

I stared at the perfect alignment of the coins, all heads-up. I constructed logical explanations. I nodded to myself.

“I AM POOR AND I REQUIRE MONEY”

I turned away and walked into the bar.

My shoulder brushed the doorframe.

My vision flashed between various perspectives on the door, the inside of the building, and an open vista of clouds and skyline. Eventually, I settled on the latter, materialising in mid-air. Above the cloudline. I fell a few inches, but then landed on some invisible floor below.

I no longer had the capacity to act shocked at this.

“This is what happens, you know,” uttered some colossal, all-encompassing voice that carried the majesty of eternity or whatever. Probably God or the developers or whatever. Who cared? My existence was bullshit anyway.

“I’m trying!” said a second voice. It was a bit higher, a bit…whinier? “I don’t know what they changed! I’ve scaled down the AI, I’ve simplified pathfinding, I’m not sure what’s eating so many cycles…”

“It’s the graphics,” the first voice said. “They turned the graphics way up. You’re running a monoplanar dimension, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“That’ll be it, then. See here? They’ve set the resolution to max. What was it on before?”

“Planck.”

“Well, there’s your problem! See, this is what happens when you leave an in-universe backdoor into the raws. You let the sims change the global settings, this is what you get.”

“Okay, okay…”

“Did you set that one to priority?”

“No?”

“Then why is it still running at 100% sim?”

“Oh. I faved it.”

“That gives it cycle priority, kid.”

“Wait, yeah, you’re right. I know. It was doing such cool stuff, I wanted to keep an eye on it!”

“Oh, it’s always fun the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I like what you did – giving sims access to the settings? Nice.”

“So, I guess I just turn the graphics back down?”

“Nah, the sim’s out of whack now. Take longer than it’s worth to set everything right again. Just load from the last save.”

The great dialog box appeared in the sky. I bowed my head.

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