's 2016 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Jacob Roberts

Richard Pastermole called a press conference in front of the massive spaceship hangar that served as a museum for his inventions and achievements. The crowd eagerly awaited what the smartest and most respected scientist on the planet had to say after ushering in an era of peace and enlightenment for all of humanity. Pastermole walked up to the microphone, looked into the camera, and told everyone that they were living in a simulation.

That was when the world went crazy.

Pastermole calmly explained that he had discovered this fact one month earlier while eating a popular recipe of stuffed pepper in his summer home on the moon. The main pepper was stuffed with smaller peppers, and each of those smaller peppers was stuffed with even smaller peppers, to the point where there were dozens of tiny peppers and only one original pepper.

After doing a rough calculation on the back of his monogramed napkin, Pastermole realized that our universe was a tiny pepper. In other words, he explained to the crowd, we had already created countless simulated worlds inside computers used for everything from training doctors to playing games. Those simulated worlds contained simulated plants, animals, and people. Some of those simulated people had created their own simulated universes inside their own simulated computers. In fact, there were a near-infinite number of simulated worlds compared to our original world. Except our world couldn't be original, statistically speaking.

The math checked out, of course. There was never any doubt about that. Besides, Pastermole was the most trusted person alive, and even those who could not read quantum equations believed he was telling the truth.

After presenting his evidence, Pastermole begged everyone not to panic. He assured us that nothing had changed, that this did not delegitimize our existence. But that wasn't enough stop the riots and the suicides. People who were once mentally stable looted department stores, feasted on endangered animals, and threw themselves into oncoming traffic. After a few weeks of complete anarchy, the rioters who were still alive organized themselves into factions.

Pastermole never said what the original, real world was like, or how many levels of simulation down we were. Some people speculated that we were near the very bottom, and insisted that we should act like it, too. They called themselves the Bottom Feeders and marched through the streets eating from trash bins and forming impromptu human pyramids to symbolize their beliefs.

The Bottom Feeders gained popularity quickly, mostly because their logic was undeniable. They pointed out that our simulation had to be at the bottom of the heap because our world was very crudely designed. After all, what kind of creator would build a simulation where really tiny particles and really big particles behave with completely different rules? And who would be incompetent enough to put our planet on a crooked axis, or give humans different skin colors?

Then there were the Second-or-maybe-Third Levelers. These optimists believed that while we certainly lived in a simulation, we couldn't be more than 1 or 2 levels down from the original, real world. They knew this because ours was a pretty good simulation, maybe even a great simulation if you squinted a little, and we should be happy that whoever created us did such a fine job.

Not everyone cared exactly where we fell on the simulation scale, but they still wanted answers. Some scientists decided to work their way up the ladder. They formulated a plan to contact the simulated people who created us, ask them to patch us through to the simulated people who created them, and so on until they reached the top.

The scientists asked Pastermole to join them, since he was the smartest out of all of them, but Pastermole only urged them not to reach out to other simulations. He wouldn't say why, and uncharacteristically locked himself away inside his massive spaceship hangar. A few concerned citizens left home cooked meals outside the ten-story doors to make sure he didn't go hungry, but no one dared question the great Pastermole.

The scientists went ahead with their plan anyway. Within a few days they figured out how to use Pastermole"s equations to hack into the source code of the universe, and shortly after that they were talking to the simulation above us.

The people who created us were very impressed that we figured out how to contact them, given that we came from a puny simulation thrown together by an obese teenager in his basement last Thursday. Our creators assured us that they lived in the real, original world, and that they were all-powerful gods and architects of all universes. The Second-or-maybe-Third Levelers rejoiced and gloated a little bit too.

It wasn't long before we received more news. Apparently the people who created us didn't have a Pastermole of their own and therefore never had the stuffed-pepper epiphany, which was an unfortunate side-effect of never inventing the dish in the first place. Once our scientists showed them Pastermole"s math and convinced them to try stuffing peppers with more peppers, which they admitted was quite delicious, their planet fell apart too. Luckily, there were enough people left after the carnage to patch us through to the simulation above them. The Second-or-maybe-Third Levelers were disappointed, but reminded everyone that they always considered the possibility that we were 2 levels down.

The next simulation we got in touch with already knew they were in a simulation, and handed us off to the simulation above them with the efficiency of a telephone operator. Naturally, the Second-or-maybe-Third Levelers had to change their name to the Fourth-or-maybe-Fifth-Levelers, but they maintained that our simulation was still pretty good, all things considered. They handed out pamphlets encouraging citizens grappling with existential angst to remember donuts. Surely only the very best simulations got those.

Around this time a handful of scientists who had joined the Bottom Feeders started going in the opposite direction. Instead of searching for the creator of all simulations, they drilled down through the web of simulations spawned in our reality to try to find one that was so poorly programmed that its inhabitants couldn't possibly build a simulation of their own. It was a slow process at first, and Bottom Feeder scientists kept getting sick and dying on account of all the trash they were eating, but eventually they were moving down through simulations just as fast as the other scientists were going up. The race was on.

The following months went by in a blur. The Fourth-or-maybe-Fifth Levelers had to change their name so many times that they eventually gave up and left it at the Six Hundred and Forty Second Levelers, which was about how many members they had left. The Bottom Feeders broke into multiple factions after a splinter group got fed up with all the infectious diseases and outlawed trash eating. Pastermole still hadn"t come out of his spaceship hangar, and people were starting to worry that he didn't have a plan to fix everything.

Regular citizens tried to go about their daily lives and ignore the chaos, but they were constantly interrupted by announcements of outlandish simulations both above and below them. It was hard enough already to motivate people to brush their teeth every day knowing their entire existence was meaningless, but most dentists just gave up altogether after hearing about a universe where everyone had tiny crustaceans living in their mouths, using their hollowed-out pearly whites as shells.

Things got stranger the farther scientists went. At 39,000 levels up, they discovered a simulation where people could breathe in space but not on planets. Our scientists were kind enough to help the simulation on top of that one reverse a tricky variable in their code to fix it, although the space-breathers argued fiercely that their way of life was normal and that everyone else"s simulation should be fixed instead. In the end they seemed happy enough with the change because no one ever heard from them again.

Some simulations took longer to get through than others. Our scientists were stuck for weeks in a simulation where light only traveled at 4 miles per hour, massively slowing down wireless communications but allowing anyone who could jog at a modest pace to travel through time. We counted ourselves lucky that we could stay in shape without accidentally travelling back to before we were born and erasing ourselves from existence.

In late September, the Bottom Feeder scientists passed through a universe a half a million levels below us where the programmers forgot to give dogs legs. That raised the question of why its inhabitants bothered domesticating dogs in the first place, to which they replied that it was much easier to keep track of something that couldn't run away.

The combined research of the scientists and Bottom Feeders proved that simulations were wildly inconsistent no matter what level they were on. Even people living in a blocky, pixelated simulation with no coherent laws of physics were capable of spawning a much more realistic simulation inside of that one, which kind of blew the Bottom Feeders" entire premise out of the water. No one was sure how far any of these simulations were from the original universe, but everyone was confident we would get there eventually.

Almost exactly one year after Pastermole"s press conference, the scientists working their way up declared that they had reached a simulation with its own Pastermole. At least, it contained a famous scientist named Pastermole, but according to reports he was emaciated, had a long, scraggly beard, and looked nothing like the smartest man on our planet. They informed the simulated Pastermole of their mission and asked to be patched up to the next universe, but received no response.

Later that day, a news conference was hastily organized in front of the real Pastermole"s spaceship hangar. Everyone waited excitedly by their televisions to hear what kind of plan Pastermole had spent the last year devising. Would he join the scientists looking for the original universe? Or would he unveil a nuclear-powered car that would give our lives meaning once again? Everyone had a theory. Finally, the hangar doors opened and Pastermole himself hobbled out to the microphone. He had grown a beard and his clothes hung loosely from his skeletal frame. He looked into the camera, said nothing, and then limped back into the hangar. We watched in silence as the massive doors slowly grinded shut behind him.