(Life is a) Box of Shadows

A Brief Mystery about Metalevels

by Thomas Kühne

Chapter One

Professor Tcejbo was satisfied, excited and nervous at the same time. He could see his own tense facial expression as a reflection in the silver box in front of him. It was the pinnacle of his research. In an amazingly short period of exactly 5 years he put together his "VIRTUAVERSE" device. Its purpose was to make Professor Tcejbo immortal. The sole fact that he was able to put together an incredibly powerful computing device that can not only fully capture a person's details but also simulate its interaction with a faithful representation of the universe, was going to make him immortal in the history of science. But Professor Tcejbo excitement was caused by another fact: He was about to press the button that would start the scanning procedure and eventually transfer his personality into the virtual universe hosted by the "VIRTUAVERSE". The proportion of nervousness in his mixture of emotions began to grow, although he knew that he took every measure of precaution to make sure that the about to be created copy of himself would be placed in world that was accurately reflecting the real world with the only difference that the copy of himself was granted an infinite lifetime. The "VIRTUAVERSE" was equipped with a power supply that would last for centuries to come and he left instructions how to replenish the supply. The box, furthermore, was capable of representing about as fifty times the amount of information he estimated would be needed and it used an internal quantum effect random generator to make sure that the virtual universe was as indeterministic as the real one. Professor Tcejbo even went as far as installing a filter between the scanner and the "VIRTUAVERSE" which would remove any trace of his ingenious invention from his personality and environment. Clearly he wanted to recreate himself as the very same personality with all his flaws, abilities, and desires but his virtual copy should not be able to develop the slightest shadow of a doubt that it owed its existence to a simulation only. Professor Tcejbo was now confident and ready. At last, he was about to finish his work. On February the 4th, 2225 he reached for the button, pressed it, and then there was nothing. Everything ceased to exist. Nothingness replaced all there was.

Chapter Two

Professor Atem scratched his head. It just did not make sense. Time and again he had tried to understand what happened but his confusion was fueled from too many sources. He knew Professor Tcejbo as a very thorough scientist and a meticulous engineer. And there he sat, electrocuted from a scanning device that he apparently triggered himself. The notes on the silver box in front of him revealed that Professor Tcejbo did not intend to commit suicide but on the contrary aimed at creating a new, immortal copy of himself. Oddly enough, thought Professor Atem, some failure or design flaw meant that Professor Tcejbo did not survive the experiment in the real world, but the full story was even worse. Why, in the world, was the silver box signaling a malfunction as well? This meant that even Professor Tcejbo's virtual copy was not among the living anymore. An "Out of Memory" exception caused the box to halt and every attempt Professor Atem made to make the box resume its execution led to the same fault. He could not understand what caused the box's capacity, that Professor Tcejbo generously designed to be ridiculously well above any expected demand, to be exhausted in only 210 years of simulation time. The box's amazing simulation speed meant that Professor Atem was able to ascertain this fact on the day Professor Tcejbo corpse was found, which was only a couple of days after his death was determined to have happened on February the 4th, 2015. Professor Atem was deeply confused by the data log the box produced regarding its remaining capacity. Periodically, every 5 years of simulation time another big chunk of the vital simulation memory was allocated which finally led to its exhaustion. Professor Atem had the sneaking suspicion that perhaps he would not be able to get on top of what happened and was close to desperation, but deep inside him he had hope that one day he may get to the bottom of things.

N.B. The number 42 (not the literal 42, though) appears courtesy of Douglas Adams ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy").


This story is not really much of a thriller unless you try to figure out what really happened. Once you've done that you will discover many ironic references to the hidden plot, such as "Tcejbo", "Atem", "finish" and "bottom", etc.

Spoiler: One of Edgar Allan Poe's poems contains the lines "Is all that we see or seem / But a dream within a dream?".

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Page Updated: 07 Sep 2010. © Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, unless otherwise stated