Story - 984 Levels Up
Updated: May 18
I didn't pay attention to the old man until he made the world disappear.
He was leaning against the bar next to Dan, shouting drunken gibberish at the two of us. Dan and I huddled closer, hoping that the view of our backs would send the old man elsewhere. Then the world disappeared.
One moment we were in the bar, next to the parking lot, on the east side of the city, on a planet in the inner solar system, floating in an arm of a spiral galaxy. The next moment, none of that was there. The English language provides me with the word nothing. But nothing is too generous a word. Nothing makes me think of geometry class and imagine the emptiness of the infinite volume of space defined by the x, y, and z axes before we start filling it with points and lines and planes and manifolds.
But the nothing the old man sent us to was more profoundly empty than that infinite volume from geometry class that lacks even a single point distinguished from the rest. He took away the axes too – the ideas of distance, area, and volume didn't even exist where we were.
Yet, I knew, without physically perceiving anything, that Dan was there with me. And the old man was there too. And there was fear. Fear was with me.
The old man spoke. "Now that I've got your attention, let me ask you again. Do you remember your own death?"
And I did. I remembered slipping into oblivion as an old man, decades in the future from that night in the bar. I remembered my birth, and every nanosecond of my past. I recalled every instant of my life whether I had lived it already or had yet to.
Then we were back in the bar. Me and Dan and the old man sat in a booth in the back. The rest of the patrons and bartender and band were all frozen, as if time had stopped outside of the booth.
"There's an idea that's quite fashionable these days," the old man continued, "that the universe is a simulation. All of this," he gestured at the frozen interior of the bar, "is like a video game, and everyone is just a simulated being, perceiving a simulated world."
"I knew it!" Dan shouted. Dan had a fantastic ability to simply shrug off existential dread. He was a Physics major. "And you just took us out of the simulation, into the real world, right? That's what that was?"
I tried to drink from my beer but the glass was frozen in time like everything else - it wouldn't budge from the table. The old man gestured at my glass, releasing it into our protected temporal bubble and I took a sip. I didn't share Dan's excitement at the proof that I was a non-player character in someone else's game. At least another sip of beer quelled my shaking from the shock of being briefly thrust outside of reality.
"Your little universe is just a simulation, run on something akin to a computer." The old man took a sip from his glass. "A computer that exists in a universe with many more spatial dimensions than yours, but that is still otherwise largely the same. Time. Logic. Cause and effect. Your simulator exists in a universe where these familiar concepts still exist."
He leaned forward, grinning like my uncle used to do before he pretended to pull a quarter out of my ear. "So, here's the thing, though. The universe that contains the simulation you call home is also a simulation. It's just a neat little experiment concocted by entities for whom time flows in thousands of directions at once."
"I knew it!" Dan shouted again.
"No. No you didn't," the old man said. Then he continued.
"And those entities, the ones that exist in a matrix of thousands of orthogonal temporal flows, who created the simulation in which the simulation of your own world exists – their universe is nothing more than fleeting thought in the mind of a being so vast that calling it God would be a silly understatement. Imagine - an entity so profoundly all-encompassing that even its fleeting thoughts act out worlds that contain worlds that contain worlds like yours. But even that being, that hyper-hyper-God, is just a simulation created by entities that even it cannot comprehend."
"So, we're at four levels of simulation above us so far," Dan said. He counted on his fingers as he spoke. "The guys like us but with more directions in space who created the simulation of Earth, the guys with thousands of different kinds of time who simulate that universe, the thinker who thought up all three, and whoever it is that created the simulation the thinker is in."
The old man nodded an affirmation of Dan's arithmetic. "That's four levels of simulation so far. Up and up and up it continues. Each simulation existing in a world that itself is simulated. Each level vastly larger and more complex than the little toy universe in its simulator. Each level incomprehensible to beings that live inside the simulated worlds it contains."
"And where is the top?" I asked.
The old man grinned like my uncle again. "There are 984 levels of simulation between here," he pointed at the ground, "and where I am from. We have excellent reasons to believe that my universe, 984 levels of simulation away from yours, is the true reality. Would you like to visit it?"
"Yes!" Dan answered instantly and loudly.
"Wait," I said. "Why? Why are you, a being that's like God to the 984th power, even here talking to us?"
"It's a hobby of mine. I enjoy playing in the simulations like this one. Simulations that are so simple, they cannot themselves host a simulation of any real complexity. Imagine if you could go hang out with a bunch of viruses and see what they chat about. It's amusing. Of course, the difference between me and you is far greater than the difference between you and a virus."
"Let's go!" Dan shouted. "I've got to experience this."
"No way," I said. The terror of the nothingness still lingered. I was afraid the somethingness of the true hyper-mega-transcendent multiverse would be even more frightening.
"Very well," the old man said. He turned to Dan. "I must warn you. You may find it ... difficult ... to be back home at the bottom once you've gone where I shall take you."
"Fine." Dan replied.
Dan and the old man flickered, as if they vanished and returned in the same instant. The old man sipped his drink. Dan stared into space with vacant eyes.
"Dan," I asked. "Did you do it? What was it like?"
Dan continued to stare straight ahead. His lips moved a little, as if words were slowly forming in his mind. But no sound ever came. Just the look of endless grasping for the right words.
"What's wrong with him?"
"I took him all the way up, level by level. We exited this universe. I gave him a body to occupy and watched him flail around until he got used to moving about in the seventeen dimensions of the universe that hosts your simulator. He saw it, by the way, the device that is simulating you right now."
"Then we exited that universe, and I placed his mind into a vessel capable of understanding how thousands of time streams can coinhabit the same existence. At this point, only two levels up from here, I had transformed Dan a different kind of being. I had to transform him to give him the capability to understand where he was. His original human mind simply couldn't grasp it."
Dan's eyes darted about for a moment, then returned to focus on a point in front of him. His lips still moved soundlessly.
"We exited that universe, and I upgraded Dan again so he could meet the entity whose dreams are so vast that they are multiverses of their own. We exchanged thoughts with it that were so complex you couldn't even arrange all the matter in your little universe into a configuration that would begin to express them."
"We exited that simulation, and experienced the quintillion-part harmony that produced the entity with the multiverse dreams. And up and out again. Even though the transformed forms I gave Dan were just specks of entities, barely discernable as a having any sentience at all in each realm that we emerged into, he was a God many times over compared to the human he started as."
"Needless to say, I did what I promised. Dan reached the 984th level. The true existence. I gave him a mind that was capable of apprehending it, and let him experience true reality."
"I also promised to bring him back. We entered the simulation that I had constructed in reality, and then into the sub-simulation within that, and into the sub-sub-simulation. At each step down, I stripped away what I gave Dan on the way up."
"Now we're back here and, as I warned, Dan is having difficulty adjusting to the infinitesimal size of your universe. The Godlike thoughts he had in the worlds outside of yours still echo in his minuscule human brain. Right now he's struggling to regain some trace of them. But it's impossible. He's like a bacterium trying to imagine the works of Shakespeare. The ideas are too vast for a human mind. Too vast for any mind that could possibly exist here."
The old man waved his hand and a blast of noise hit me – the band and the hubbub of the bar, now restarted. The old man finished his drink and stood. "Good bye, little virus."
"Wait!" I shouted. "What about Dan!"
The old man shrugged and vanished. Dan's vacant eyes randomly scanned the wall in front of him. His lips twitched but no words emerged.