SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "Iterations"
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 2000 by
Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
First published in
TransVersions: An Anthology of New Fantastic Literature,
edited by Marcel Gagné and Sally Tomasevic, 2000.
by Robert J. Sawyer
"I'm going to have to kill you," I said to myself,
The face looking back at me across the desktop was my own, of
course, but not the way I was used to seeing it; it wasn't
flopped left-to-right like it is in a mirror. The other me
reacted with an appropriate mixture of surprise and disbelief.
The shaggy eyebrows went up God, why don't I trim those
things? the brown eyes widened, and the mouth opened to
utter a protest.
"You can't kill me," he I said. "I'm you."
I frowned, disappointed that he didn't understand. "You're a me
that never should have existed."
He spread his arms a bit. "Who's to say which of us should have
One of the interesting things about working in the publishing
industry in Canada is this: it's full of Americans who came here
during Vietnam. And, even if they didn't want to go to war, some
of them do know how to get guns. "Who's to say which of
us should have existed?" I repeated. I took the Glock 9 mm
that Jack Spalding had procured for me out of my pocket and
pulled the trigger. "I am."
I was at home with Mary, my wife and, until everything had fallen
apart, my business partner. We were in our bedroom, and I was
trying to get through to her. "Don't you see?" I said, sitting
on the edge of the bed. "None of this is real it can't
She sat down next to me and began brushing her hair. "What are
you talking about?"
"You. Me. This bed. This house. This planet. It's all
faked. It's all a computer-based simulation."
Mary shook her head slightly. She hated it when I talked like
"It's true," I said. "It's true and I can prove it."
She pressed her lips tightly together, and blew air out of her
nose. She didn't say "How?" She didn't say anything.
I wished there were a more obvious way. I wished I could grab
hold of of that wall there, say, and pull it aside,
revealing the machinery beyond, but, of course, I couldn't. The
wall was simulated perfectly; the rest of Toronto was simulated
perfectly, too. So was all of Canada, of North America, the
entire planet. There was no place I could take her where she
would see that corners had been cut, see scaffolding propping up
a false front to a non-existent building. This Earth at
least all of its surface, and its atmosphere thinning out to
almost nothing a few hundred kilometers up, and its rocky crust,
and maybe even some portion of its mantle were flawlessly
But even they had limits. Yes, they could reproduce
Earth, or as much of it as humans could ever access,
"Look," I said. "Imagine a space probe that could travel at
one-tenth the speed of light."
She was staring at me as though I wasn't even speaking English
I pressed on. "Imagine that space probe, taking decades to get
to the next star. And imagine it finding raw materials there to
build ten duplicates of itself, and then sending those
duplicates, at the same speed, to ten other nearby stars. Even
if it took fifty years to find the raw materials and make the
duplicates, and fifty more years for those duplicates to travel
to their target stars, if the process continued, how long do you
think it would take for such probes to colonize the entire
"What are you talking about?" said Mary again.
"Sixty thousand years," I said, triumphantly. "Give or take.
One single probe, launched into space by any civilization
anywhere in the Milky Way, could colonize this whole giant galaxy
in just sixty thousand years."
Our little publishing company had been called CanScience Books;
I'd been editorial director. Mary didn't know much about
science, but she was a wiz at accounting. "So?"
"So," I said, "the universe is maybe twelve billion years old."
I grabbed her shoulders. "Don't you see? Someone somewhere
must have launched self-replicating probes like the ones I
described. This planet should have been visited by them ... but
"Maybe there aren't any other civilizations."
"Of course there are. There must be." It drove me nuts
that she never read the books we'd published. "Everything we
know about physics and chemistry and biology says the universe
should be overrun with life. But none of it has come here." I
shifted my weight; maybe I shook her slightly. I so much wanted
her to see. "And what about SETI? The search for
extraterrestrial intelligence? We've been listening for half a
century now and haven't picked up a thing. We shouldn't need to
do anything more than point a radio dish up at the night sky to
pick up thousands millions of alien signals. But
"And think about the moon. Do you know how many people have gone
to the moon? Twelve! That's all, in the total history of our
race twelve people have stood on its surface. And no one
has gone back; no one even has plans to go back. And what
about Mars? We should have landed on it within a few years of
going to the moon, but no one's made it there and, again,
no one is planning to go. And the space probes we send there
keep failing. The Mars Climate Orbiter, the Mars Polar Lander
complete write-offs! I mean, let's be real: an important
mission to Mars junked because some engineer couldn't convert
between imperial and metric measurements? It's unbelievable."
"I still don't see " began Mary.
"Let me spell it out, then: it's one thing to simulate the
Earth. That's a big computing problem, sure, but it's doable."
"Not on any computer I've ever seen," said Mary.
"Well, no, of course it's not doable yet. But it will be.
Eventually, the Earth and everyone who ever lived on it
will be simulateable on sufficiently advanced computers."
"When?" said Mary.
"Who knows? A million years from now? A billion? Ten billion?
Or maybe Frank Tipler wrote about this maybe at the
very end of time, as the universe is collapsing back down in a
big crunch. Eventually there will be sufficient computing
power to simulate the entire planet and everyone who ever lived
"How would they know anything about us?" asked Mary. "How could
they possibly simulate you and me without records of what we were
"They won't need any records." Why couldn't she see this?
"A human being consists of about thirty thousand active genes.
That means that there are about three-to-the-millionth-power
possible genetically distinct humans. And there are about
2-to-the-10th-to-the-17th power possible human memories.
Multiply it all out, and you'll find that you could reproduce all
possible versions of our world including every possible
combination of human beings, with every possible set of memories
in 10-to-10th-to-the-123rd bits."
"Ten to the tenth to ..."
"To the 123rd, yes," I said. "And that amount will surely
eventually be computable. Meaning that you could well,
Tipler used the word `resurrect,' and that's as good as any
you could resurrect everyone who ever lived as computer
simulations, without knowing anything specific about them."
Mary looked at me. "And you think that's what we are?
Resurrected versions of people who died billions of years ago?"
"We have to be. It's the only thing that explains the
absence of extraterrestrial probes here, or of radio signals from
other civilizations. To simulate Von Neumann probes
that's what those self-replicating robots are called and
the chatter of alien races would mean simulating the rest of the
universe, with its billions of different lifeforms. But they
don't have enough computer memory or, if they do, they
consider it wasteful. So, yes, this world seems real to
us, but it's fake. It has to be."
"Oh, Erik," said Mary, shaking her head, then letting out a sigh.
"Go to sleep."
She kissed me and lay down.
I lay down too, but it was hours before I fell asleep.
If I'm a computer simulation, created millions or billions of
years in the future of what I think of as the present, and if I
was created simply as one possible human being with one possible
set of memories, do other versions of me exist?
Did the simulators whoever they are pick one state
of humanity at random for their experiment? Maybe. But Tipler
said they would actually simulate all the possible states.
And if they did
If there are other versions of me
All the horrid things I'd ever thought about doing: the
stealing, the cheating, and, yes, the murders. In other parts of
this vast computer simulation, there must exist other Erik
Hansens who had done those things. Some, of course, will have
been arrested for their crimes, and will be paying their debts to
their simulated societies.
But others ...
I once heard a statistic that ninety percent of men would commit
rape if they felt sure they could get away with it. I'd never
believed that figure; rarely did I meet an attractive woman that
I didn't have at least a passing thought about having sex with,
but never would it occur to me to force myself upon her.
Well, almost never ...
If they had simulated this me, they could have simulated
that me, too indeed, all the other possible mes: a
me who had raped Connie Hughes in high school, when she hadn't
wanted to go as far as I'd wanted to; a me who had stolen a
thousand dollars from Gideon Dillings; a me who ...
Mary and I hated to even mention his name: my bête noire,
the bane of my existence. Roscoe Harada, that goddamned son of a
Yes, the version of me who had done what I had fantasized about
doing. The version of me who had caved in Harada's brow-ridged
cranium with an aluminum baseball bat ...
And the version of me who had shot him in the face, watching his
skull open up like time-lapse film of a rose blooming ...
And the version of me who had pushed him off the Bloor Street
viaduct, letting him fall to the Don Valley Parkway, his body
going splat, and then being run over by car after car
after car ...
They were all conceivable memory states. And if they
were possible, then perhaps they did exist in other
iterations of this simulation.
And that was intolerable.
It took a while to work it out, but I could now slip between
worlds. I rather suspect the designers of the simulation didn't
know I was doing it. Sure, murders were occurring as I
eliminated other versions of myself versions whose
existence I couldn't countenance. But murders happen all the
time. And if there were billions of versions of reality, well,
on any given day, the same person would be snuffed out in
millions of them anyway.
As I'd guessed, the simulators apparently had constraints on how
much memory they could use, and so had decided to reconstruct
Earth but none of the rest of the universe at least not in
any detail. And since there were memory constraints, some
sort of data compression was being employed. Whenever the
operating system saw that there were two or more identical
versions of any given object, rather than code them both twice,
it apparently would code only one version and simply put a
pointer to it in the other iterations of the simulation.
I've always had an eidetic memory and a vivid imagination
I dream in color, unlike Mary. By fully and completely imagining
myself to be as I would have been in one of the alternative
realities, by essentially convincing myself that I had
killed Roscoe Harada, even for an instant, the operating system
saw this me and the other version of me as identical. And then
don't ask me how I did this; I can't explain it any more
than I can explain how I walk I manage somehow to access
the pointer registry, and slip into the version of the simulation
in which that other me, the one I was imagining, does exist.
Granted, not everything I could imagine is possible. I could
imagine indeed, relish an image of a world in which
Harada had fallen down some stairs and broken his back and then,
later, in which he and I had ended up in a knockdown, drag-out
fistfight in which I pounded him into a bloody pulp. But, of
course, if he were paralyzed, the subsequent brawl wouldn't have
been possible. No, there was no pointer to that world.
But to other possibilities, the pointers did exist.
And I traveled to them, world after world, iteration after
iteration, putting an end to the unconscionable versions of me.
"I'm sorry, Erik," I said, "but I've got to kill you."
Of course, the other me wasn't in my office at CanScience
he couldn't be. In any iteration in which I still had that
office, cramped though it had been, Harada would still be alive.
Instead, I was confronting him in the basement of our house; it
was 10:00 a.m. on a weekday, but I guess his shift didn't start
until later today.
The voice of the other me was edged with panic. "Why would you
want to kill me?"
"Because you murdered Roscoe Harada."
The brown eyes darted left and right. There was only one way out
of the basement up the wooden staircase and I was
blocking that. "You can't prove that."
"I don't have to prove it to anyone but me. I'm here in
this version of the simulation because I imagined a world
in which we'd killed Harada with a knife to the left kidney. If
that wasn't what really happened here, I wouldn't have
been able to transfer to this iteration."
The other me hesitated, as if unsure what to say. Then he
frowned. "So what if I did do it? You must have wanted to do
it, too. After what he did to us "
"I don't dispute that he should be dead. But what makes us
better than Harada is that we never did anything awful to him to
get even. And I can't live with the knowledge that a version of
reality exists in which we did."
"But if you kill me, then you'll be a murderer, too."
"Is it murder? Or is it suicide?" My turn to frown. "Perhaps
it's neither. Perhaps it's just me setting things straight."
"This won't bring Harada back to life in this iteration."
"No. But it will serve as a fitting punishment for his death,
allowing me to enjoy my existence without guilt."
"But, look, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics
says that "
I cut him off. "It says that even in the real, non-simulated
world that must have existed at one time, whenever an action can
go two ways, it does go both ways, but in separate
universes, spinning off new timelines for each possible version
The other me nodded vigorously. "Exactly. So this vast
multiplexed computer simulation is no different from that."
"Except that John Cramer's transactional interpretation solves
all the quandaries of quantum physics without recourse to
parallel universes. If this were the real world, I could believe
that Cramer was right and Hugh Everett was wrong, and there was
only one timeline. But here I know know!
that there are versions of the simulation in which all the base
things I've ever thought of doing actually happened. And if I'm
going to have peace "
"If you're going to have peace," said the other me, with
resignation, "you're going to have to put an end to me."
I squeezed the trigger and said "Exactly," but the bark of the
Glock drowned out the word.
What did Roscoe Harada do to me, you might ask? CanScience was a
small publishing company, and he was the buyer for a large
bookstore chain. We solicited pre-pub orders for a book called
Y2canucK: A Canadian Guide to Preparing for the Year 2000.
For us, a thousand copies was a normal print run. Chapters had
taken four hundred copies; Indigo, a hundred and seventy-five.
And then Harada's order came in for his company: 25,000 copies,
by far the biggest order we'd ever had.
We printed the books and delivered them: five hundred and twenty
cartons, all shipped at our expense to Harada's warehouse in
And Harada had his people sit on them, never even putting them
out into the stores.
And then, in January 2000, he returned them all. Every single
copy. They were in the same cartons we'd shipped them out in;
they'd never even been opened.
Y2K didn't turn out to be a disaster so said all the
But it was a disaster for Mary and me.
Books are fully returnable, and Harada's chain had used its
buying clout to get not just CanScience but all publishers to
offer them extended payment terms. The books came back before
his company had ever paid a single dime on the original invoice.
And, of course, there was no longer any market anywhere for that
I couldn't pay even a fraction of the printer's bill, and the
printer sued, forcing Mary and me into bankruptcy.
We lost our company.
We came within inches of losing our home.
Why had Harada done it? Because I'd spoken harshly about his
company's bullying practices in an interview in Quill &
Quire, the Canadian publishing trade journal.
Why had he done it?
Because he could.
Of course maybe neither he nor I had ever really existed. We
were merely possible combinations of genes, recalling possible
permutations of memory. Maybe all these iterations of him and me
have no basis in reality.
In which case, killing him wouldn't be so awful. After all,
maybe he never was meant to exist. Maybe I was never meant to
No, no, when you came right down to it, killing him would not be
that bad. And it would be a way for me to regain mental peace,
wouldn't it? I didn't like arguing with Mary; I didn't like
laying awake at night, haunted by what had happened.
If I killed Harada, if I made him pay for what he'd done to us,
then maybe I could relax. Mary and I wouldn't get our publishing
company back, but at least I'd have the comfort that came with
knowing he hadn't gotten away with it.
And let's face it there must be trillions of
iterations of the simulation, if all theoretically possible
humans have been generated. I'd made a start, to be sure, but I
couldn't possibly track down all the versions of me that have
already gotten rid of Harada.
But if I killed him, too, in this reality
Well, then, I wouldn't be so tortured by the existence of other
versions of me who had killed him, and
No, dammit, no.
Be honest with yourself, Erik.
I'm not tortured by them.
I'm jealous of them jealous that they get to live
in worlds without Roscoe Harada, and I do not.
But if I joined them ...
If I joined them, I'd at last be free.
The smorgasbord of possibilities made me giddy. Stabbing? Gun
shot? Electrocution? Drowning? Poison? Dismemberment?
Running him over with my car? Hacking away at him with an ax ...
I savored the options, but finally came back down to Earth. It
didn't have to be anything dramatic; indeed, I didn't have to do
it myself. In fact, I probably shouldn't do it myself.
When I need wiring done I call an electrician, because I'd just
mess things up if I tried to handle it on my own.
So why not call a professional this time?
The phone call came a week later. Just two words, in a lilting
Québecois accent: "It's done." I didn't tell Mary, of
course, but it was the lead story on the CityPulse News at
Six: "Book company executive found shot to death."
Mary and I made love that night like we hadn't for years, like we
were the only people in the universe.
I was free. At last, I was free of Harada.
Mary left for work in the morning she, at least had a
marketable skill; she'd found work at a midsize accounting firm.
But I decided to call in sick I worked as a clerk at the
Chapters superstore in Bayview Village now, making not much more
than minimum wage. But at least I was still in the book business
although nobody from the trades ever called to ask me for
a quote anymore.
No, today was a day to kick back and, for the first time in
years, it seemed, to relax.
I didn't think much of it when I heard sounds coming from
downstairs a few minutes after Mary had left; she often forgot
her purse or gloves and had to come back to fetch them.
Still, I decided to head down. Maybe I could entice her to stay
home, too. We could spend the day drinking wine and making love,
I should have seen it coming, of course.
Downstairs, in my living room, was another version of me, holding
a gun. He looked into my eyes, and I looked into his.
"I can't live knowing that what you've done is going to go
unpunished," he said.
"He deserved to die," I said. "You know that."
The gun was pointed at my chest, unwavering. The other me said
"You want him out of our lives out of every version of our
lives as much as I do," I said.
"But I can't countenance what you did," said the me with the gun.
"It's not right."
"But it's what we wanted."
"But to live, knowing that you've done this and will likely get
away with it ...," he said. "I'm sorry, but there has to
be a version of us that is at peace."
And, as the gun fired, I realized, there was or, at least,
there was about to be.
And it was me.
• The End •
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