Winter had come to the Temple in full bitter force, so a novice of the Clan of Iron Bones chose to spend his leave time visiting brethren in Phong Province to the south. The monks of that place worked on the planes of a great render farm, where the directional light was gloriously warm regardless of the season.
All morning the novice watched as learned brothers scurried to and fro, planting random number seeds, building bounding-boxes, or wrapping wire frames around even the tiniest model so that its pixels would blossom in just the right places. Thus were produced succulent scenes of every shade and hue, to please the tastes of the Imperial Court.
As midday approached, the novice’s stomach began to rumble. Since he required an escort to venture into the temple proper, the novice approached a pleasant-looking boy about his own age, who was rigging artificial light sources above a grove of small quadtrees. The boy’s clothes were of a rough sturdy linen, yet as testament to the rigor of his duties the once-solid hues had been worn down to dithered bits, both knees were covered with bi-quadratic patches, and the right cuff showed signs of aliasing.
“Ten thousand pardons,” said the novice (feeling all the more guilty for his own idleness) “but this miserable body will gnaw at me until I feed it a bowl of rice. Where is your master, that I may beg or barter with him?”
“In his chambers, where very soon I must go to bring him his bowl,” said the boy. “Walk with me as I fetch it and I will fill your own as well, for at this time of year our buffers are always full.”
The novice accepted a generous helping of rice, then followed the boy on his errand up the dim spiralling staircase which was the temple’s only hallway. It was built thus, the boy explained, to baffle stray photons.
“For glare is ever our enemy,” said the boy, pushing open the door to his master’s chamber. “Although there are greater perils, as my master could certainly tell you, if he were here.”
The novice followed the boy inside, puzzled. The high windowless room was lit only by the diffuse glow of a monitor on a solitary desk. The surface of the wide monitor could not be seen from this angle, but the glassy stare of the motionless, drooling old man behind it made the novice’s hair stand on end as surely as if his scalp had commanded every follicle to indicate its normal vector.
The boy slowly set the bowl down in front of his master, then backed away, taking care to avert his eyes from the screen.
“He is lost,” explained the boy bitterly. “You see, long ago he devised an ingenious algorithm for rendering any part of the mandelblob in the wink of an eye...”
“I have heard of this shape,” interrupted the novice, unable to tear his gaze from the master’s visage. “Rumors, only... a dread equation so small it may be inscribed on my little finger, yet describing a fractal sphere of infinite complexity.”
“Not just a sphere,” continued the boy. “A world; a worm-eaten world, implicit in the laws of number theory. Permeated by caves within caves within caves, their walls scarred by gaping chasms, yawning cracks and belching crevices. Pick any taffy-twisted tunnel, the smoothest you like, and if you zoom in far enough you’ll find that the surface wriggles and blisters and boils like putrid flesh on the cusp of liquescence, sprouting flaccid stalagmites a-crawl with mushrooms, mushrooms on mushrooms on mushrooms too tiny to be imagined, until they vanish into their own asymptotes, erupting on the other side as spores above spores above spores; and each spore is its own worm-eaten world as infinitely complex as its progenitor, yet perversely different from it too...
“My master had barely begun to explore this shape when by some accident he zoomed too deep into one particular nanoscopic nodule, one random spore among billions, and found—or so he claimed—that it was a verisimilitudinous image of our own world. Yes! Mathematical mountains exactly where our mountains lie, bursting with needled protuberances like ferns or fir-trees—all the same sickly amber hue, like the virtual cumuloids that hover above, and the simulated shorelines gritty with picoparticles of amber sand, where amber waves of graininess stand poised to break but never do; for this is a three-dimensional world, and for want of fourth nothing moves, not even the people. Yes, people! Monochromatic statues grotesque in face and form, yet human down to the eyelash-hairs, to the pores in their nostrils, like caves within caves...
“But in his trembling haste to plumb the depths of this flyspeck world, my master clicked left instead of right. His cursor jumped sideways and the crucial coordinates were lost forever. I am told his howls of anguish could be heard in the surrounding hills. Every monk of the temple rushed to this chamber, frantic to learn what great disaster had befallen. And thus did he relate the tale of his discovery.
“The other masters laughed at him, called him a liar or mad. Even monks of low station shunned him. So he set out to clear his name by finding those fateful coordinates again.
“Days became weeks, became months, became years, and now see what he is reduced to: a prisoner of the Unit Sphere, forever wandering while going nowhere, held captive by his own obsession. For a time, perhaps, he believed he had stumbled onto some Great Truth of the Universe, a calculable correspondence between the world of flesh and the one of figures. Now I cannot guess what landscapes he wanders, or why—nor would I wish to, lest I succumb to some irresistable fascination and so share his fate. It is said that fore-warned is fore-armed, but for me at least... I fear my mind. When the real meets the imaginary, their product is always complex.”
The novice edged forward to peer around the edge of the screen, but the boy stopped him.
“Take your rice and leave this cursed place,” said the boy. “And bring this one truth back to your own temple: that the Render Farm of Phong Province is no better than a poppy field, where daily we sow the doom of our people.”
“I do not see,” said the novice.
“The Emperor has but to name a pleasure—the thrill of battle among the stars, the viewing of immodest persons engaged in lecherous activities—and we will serve it to his private chambers in six million pixels of sixteen million colors at sixty frames a second. But do not envy him this. Instead fear the day that you and I enjoy the same liberty. For though we have created an eternity of wonders here, none of us are given an eternity to explore them. How precious is time; and how empty, ultimately, is any world but our own.”
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