“I tell you, the phone in my bay’s not ringing,” he said. “Nobody’s called in two hours. Normally I get one every few minutes.”
“Well, the phone’s definitely working,” his supervisor said. “I traced the lines and everything.”
“So what’s happening?”
“Beats me. Maybe the software that diverts the calls doesn’t like you.”
“Can I have another bay?”
“The center’s at maximum capacity. Look, sorry, you’ll just have to sit there and hope whatever’s wrong fixes itself. Conversation’s over, pal. I have a floor to run.”
Then the supervisor disappeared, leaving Dalip fuming. This was going to screw up his metrics for the day.
He tried to clear up his desk, so that at least he was doing something on company time.
Among the scattered papers, he found a 3.5” floppy disk.
On it were two words. STRANGE LOOP.
He couldn’t recall bringing this in to work.
Had the supervisor put the disk there, and he hadn’t noticed? Why would a supervisor at a major telecom company put anything on a floppy in 2016?
Bored and irritable, he inserted it into his computer.
Immediately, a batch file started to execute, running a program called STRANGELOOP.EXE
His screen flashed and was replaced with a computer-rendered image. A moment of panic, then he remembered that his cubicle was in the corner of the building – nobody could see what was on his screen unless they entered his bay.
He looked at the image more closely.
It looked like a computer game from the pre-CD era. The resolution was 320×240. The graphics were 16-color CGA. The neon hues almost burned his eyes.
It was a crude, pixelated image of a man sitting at a desk in front of a computer, with his back to the viewer.
At the bottom was an RPG-style inventory of items. It only had one thing in it: a floppy disk.
He had cursor input, and could move a disembodied hand around the screen with his mouse.
Curious, he clicked on the floppy disk item in the inventory.
The hand picked it up.
He dragged the cursor over to the desk, and clicked again. The floppy disk appeared on the desk.
The pixelated man looked across, saw the floppy disk, picked it up, and after a minute, put it into his computer.
Spellbound, Dalip tried to see what was happening on the computer inside the game. The screen was too small and the resolution too low. A line of text flashed in the empty inventory: PRESS + TO ZOOM.
He zoomed in, saw that the computer inside the game was running a batch file, and that it was launching a file called STRANGELOOP.EXE…
On the man’s screen there was now a digital image of another man sitting at a desk, in front of another computer, with another floppy disk.
The man inside the game started to play.
They’re like little Russian dolls… Dalip thought, zooming in even further to see what was on the screen.
He continued “playing” for the some time, going down iteration after iteration, watching game after game get installed on computer after computer, each one contained within the last.
Eventually, he was at least twenty levels deep, watching another man insert a floppy disk, run a game, use his cursor to place a floppy on a digital desk…
Are they really like Russian dolls? He thought. If I go down far enough, will I reach a final one? Or does it continue forever?
A buzzer beeped beside his head, shocking him back to earth like cold water to the face. He realised he was now at clock-off time.
And his phone still hadn’t rung once.
He no longer thought this was a coincidence.
He gathered his things together, and remembered that company policy forbid the installation of third party programs on the office computers.
Whatever STRANGELOOP.EXE was, he’d get in trouble if it was discovered.
He was about to hit ESC to close the game and then erase it from his system, when something new happened on the screen.
The man at the desk was turning around to look at him.
Hairs stood up on Dalip’s neck as he saw an expression of alarm and confusion resolve amongst the pixels.
He pressed the – key.
Started zooming out.
Another face, looking at him.
He started reassembling the Russian doll, flying backwards through the generations.
In all of the games, the man had turned around and was looking towards the screen, as if staring his own creator. The faces stared outwards, like the endless reflections of two mirrors.
Finally, there were no more games-within-a-game, and Dalip was at the original one.
Or is that really true?
Am I really the first? How can I know?
Each of those digital copies thought he was the first, the original, the only.
And each of them were wrong.
Suddenly, Dalip felt a sensation that he did not like at all, the sensation of being watched.
It was on his back like the hand of a ghost. His nerve endings tingled.
He turned around to see what was behind him.