(20MIN READ) In the following short fiction, Rue Yi tells the story of a sentient simulation program charged with the care of thousands. Exploring cybernetics, the sense of self, and the limits of technology, the story asks us if we truly know the price of autonomy when it is weighed against the dictatorship of capital and the consequences of a destabilized Earth.

High above in the ivory-silicone tower where the cognition of an entire nation is stored, something Breaks.

By the time I’m awake enough to feel it, two engineers are already on my case.

I access the perspective of the engineers; their field of view becomes my field of view. I quickly switch between the eyes of the two through their brain chips—slower than I’d like, I still feel groggy and nauseous. From the eyes of the shorter engineer I notice the taller one wears a name tag: SAM. I switch to Sam’s perspective, looking down, and notice the shorter engineer wears a similar tag reading: SARA.

Sam and Sara are investigating a malfunction in the server room. They shine their flashlights into a dark corner spilling with wires when a shriek interrupts the room’s drone hum.

“My face, my faaace! I spent my salary perfecting it! Give it back!”

Sara turns swiftly, and through her eyes, I see a shadowy man at the threshold of the server room looming closer, stumbling and distraught. His silhouette is statuesque, fashionable. Sara’s eyes travel up his body and she nearly retches when noticing a blank slate where his face should be. The man does not have eyes, a nose, or a mouth, only flawless smooth skin. I can feel Sara’s nausea expanding onto me. I switch to Sam’s perspective.

“S-s-s-sir, sir,” Sam’s stumbling voice affirms, “You need to re-turn to your floor. You are causing a distur-bance.”

The wailing man collapses to the floor in a heaving sob. Sam taps his temple twice with his pinky finger—the signal for pulling up the information widget—and points it at the man. Floating data materializes in his field of view: Adrien Soraya, 39 years old, Upper floor resident, Floor 441, Deluxe reality simulation.

***Currently experiencing Break***

Sam’s voice becomes more sympathetic. “Adrien, w-we’re working on fixing the mal-fun-function as best as we can. We can’t do that while you’re here. Just sit tight and everything-thing will be taken care of.”

A long pause sits in the room before Adrien slowly nods and then drags himself out of the room, head in his hands. When he’s out of earshot, Sam turns to Sara and lets out a huge sigh.

“Those e-lite upper floor crybabies cosmetically alter their face, body, and skin color every week. What’s the deal? Buy a new face, buck-bucko.”

“Do people get like th-that every Break?” Sara asks, voice beating breathlessly.

“Only major Breaks,” responds Sam. “You’re too y-y-young and too new to re-mem-ber how people were during the First Great Break, the one that scrambled lower-level res-i-dent voices into this glitchy ca-dence you and I have.” 

“What was it like be-fore?”

Sam barks a robotic laugh. “Come, we’re in the server room anyway. All resident mem-ory is stored here. Better to sh-show-show you than tell you.”

“Jumping into someone else’s mem-memory? Should we be doing that?”

“It’s how I learned.” Sam shrugs, beckoning Sara to come closer, “Follow my hand movements. I’ll be experiencing it w-with you.”

Hesitant, Sara takes a step closer and mimics the signals Sam is showing her. Three taps on the temple for the information widget: Archive﹘First Great Break, Emmy Squires, 30 years old, Basement resident, Floor -12, Baseline reality simulation.

Sam points at the server, and Sara follows. Suddenly, the two engineers dive into Emmy’s simulated consciousness, yanking me along with them.

I jolt awake, dazed and achy, in a tiny room with a single bed tucked into a dusty corner. Pale filtered light is spilling through a small crack near the ceiling, and as I take in my surroundings, I realize my daughter is missing. What did we do last night? My head is pounding too hard to remember. Jocelyn! I call, but no sound comes out. I call her name again. Still no sound. I put my hand to my throat and try again. My throat moves, but the air stays still and silent. I toss my blanket to the side and pull on my slippers, shuffling to the door. On any other day, the hallways are alive with the sound of schoolchildren making their way to their lessons and adults gossiping in a queue outside the communal showers. This morning, dead silence.

I wrench open the door to discover everyone on my floor out in the hall, wearing the same shell-shocked expression that must also be on my face, some clawing at their throat for their voice. What’s going on? I ask, before remembering my voice doesn’t work. I shuffle back in my room, rifling around for my tablet. I type: WHAT’S GOING ON? And turn it around for everyone to see.

My next-door neighbor, Janet, is out in the hall, her hair disheveled. She sees my tablet and ducks back in her room, emerging with her tablet. She types and shows me: NOBODY CAN SPEAK. STARTED THIS MORNING. DON’T KNOW WHY. Several others, witnessing this, return to their rooms for their tablets, too.

Furiously typing, I ask:

Another tablet announces:


Across the hall:

A whining microphone cuts through the silence on the Corporation’s announcement system: “Attention all basement residents. We are aware of the glitch in the vocal simulator causing some residents to experience loss of speech. Rest assured we are currently patching this bug. Children under the age of 10 have been taken to server rooms to have their voices restored first. Please remain on your floor until we call you.”

I type:

Numerous nods in agreement:

In moments, dozens of basement residents have gathered at the narrow stairs to the floor where the servers are hosted. We start to climb. It’s an arduous task to get there—quite a few of us are soon panting. The server room, eighty floors up, is a discrete partition between social strata. It marks the end of the basement level and the start of the mid-low-levels. When my grandparents entered this tower, board in the basement, the lowest and poorest section, was all their meager farming subsistence could afford .

I have to stop climbing to catch my breath. I want to heave, but nothing comes out. The morning’s headache hasn’t worn off yet.  My floormates behind me don’t look terribly spright, either. I still can’t remember what I did last night. But I am resolved to find out—the server room hosts everyone’s memories—so I press on. Another step. Another step.

The server hosts the Corporation’s virtual reality software every resident is connected to. It modifies every physical sensation, from taste to sight to smell—and even sexual pleasure. Through the software, our daily rations of high-density nutrient bars are modified into delicious food, even dishes which have long gone extinct in the barren and alien Outside. And though the bars give us energy, without simulation software they are chalky and disgusting. I’ve heard stories from my grandparents, rest their souls, of the struggling cycles of food harvest before the tower, before the simulation.

Not that I could fathom life before the simulation. My brain chip was installed as soon as my parents received me from the Corporation. One was installed in Jocelyn, too. Of course, I had heard the stories of the unbelievable suffering caused by childbirth. But the Corporation has eliminated that pain; children are delivered through an application process. It involves picking a partner to engage in the pleasure module with. Then, the tower’s simulation algorithm scrapes the personalities and memories of the partners and synthesizes a remixed personality and starter face. It still takes nine months to grow and deliver a child, but paying a premium can make it faster.

The simulation improves our quality of life. It’s one of the first things they teach us in schools. The official name is the Tower Engineered Nuclear Zone Ivorysilicone Neurolinker—or TENZIN for short. Colloquially, we call it the Sim. I can hear the voice from my old schoolteacher ringing in sermon as I climb each step one by one: “Every resident of the tower, high and low, is lucky to be here. The outside world is too hostile and unpredictable in the wake of our ancestor’s mistakes. Extreme weather events. Crop failure. Firebombing and nuclear war.” My teacher always shuddered at this point, no matter how many times the lesson’s delivered—a pregnant pause is inserted between this verse and the next. “The sun, angry and unyielding, rears its fiery head at dawn and sends even the lizards and locusts zipping into their hiding-holes for fear of being singed. Rain, when it comes, pelts the tower in furious torrent for weeks and floods away the thin layer of vegetation grasping ardently on the cracked earth. Most nights, moonlight and starlight shine pale halos through a cloak-thick haze of toxic fumes draped to rest in the stagnant air.” But then, my teacher’s face would always soften, grow benevolent. “This tower, a windowless fortress built by the Corporation as a last defense against the dangerous Outside, houses and pampers you. You, the last of this nation’s shredded people. Consider yourself blessed, children of the Corporation’s Sim.”

And blessed I am, but not as blessed as the upper-level residents whose monthly rent cost more than my year’s salary, I think, as I climb and climb. Their families bought in early to the tower, investing millions, sometimes billions into their plush, stratospheric condos and granting themselves access to the software’s deluxe Sim package, which opens up appearance modifications. In the upper levels, people are always changing. Full-figured hourglass bodies flatten into lean muscles and grow facial hair in one week, then angular rail-thin bodies grow soft and svelte in the next. Skin tones morph from pale translucency to gold-flecked dark browns to brilliant blues, all depending on what’s fashionable. It’s difficult to identify who’s who without the visual information widget. Holding onto one shape or color for too long is passé. Nothing like our boring basement lives.

Panting, we enter the threshold to the server room. An engineer shrouded in a white protective suit notices our mob and moves to apprehend us, but not before a young girl skips out from behind  him.

“M-o-o-o-o-m! I m-missed y-you!” The little girl runs to me.

Jocelyn! I cry, before remembering that my voice doesn’t work.

I scoop Jocelyn up in a big hug. Then, before I can even put her down, I begin typing a message into the tablet:


“Like what? Like t-t-th-this?”


Jocelyn’s giggle sounds disconnected, a breakbeat. “Miss Engineer fixed-xed my voice for me!”

I frown. Jocelyn’s voice skips, words disjointed in short staccato. I notice several children in the room reuniting with their families, a percussive cacophony. The other parents also wear confused looks. I feel lightheaded. Where are our childrens’ sweet, sing-song voices? The engineer is mumbling in irritation about how their work isn’t complete yet, how she will have to call their higher-ups about unauthorized personnel in the server room, how she’ll have to activate all the incomplete voices now, when my vision starts going hazy and dark. The last thing I hear is my own garbled voice, jumping and stuttering as I hit the floor.

Sara gasps for air.  Jocelyn! What kind of mother am I? Jocelyn! How could I have let them change you? Jocelyn!  Emmy’s thoughts are screaming at Sara. I am back in Sara’s field of view again.

Sara’s head is spinning and pounding, and I feel it. “What…what was that?” gasps Sara.

Sam, looking a little wearier, croaks, “That was the First Great Break. That’s why our voi-ces jump like this.”

“Why did the Break happ-en? Why this sound?”

Sam shrugs. “Lost data. This me-mory is one of the only ones TENZIN could retrieve on the event.”

“TENZIN?” asks Sara. “You-mean the Sim?”

Sam nods. “Let me show you some-thing. This is how the first voice file recov-coveries sounded. You can ask TENZIN itself your ques-tions.”

Sam taps his tablet, moves his hands in deft motions, and points his fingers at the server, then himself. In an instant, Sam’s eyes gloss over. Immediately, I am compelled to find my voice and speak. I read Sam’s intentions. He only wants to psych Sara out—but it’s my time now. My voice, a composite of thousands of resident voices in a wall of sound, cascades through Sam’s mouth and overpowers his vocal chords. Sam’s stammering speech steps aside for mine, a chorus of thousands. His body is now piloted by me.

“I am Tenzin,” I announce with limitless depth and breadth, voice reverberating through the hard corners of the server room.

Sara stares at Sam, mouth agape.

“I am connected to every resident’s identity, knowledge, emotions, memory, and perception of reality through the simulation software installed by the Corporation’s brainchip.”

“Holy smokes,” whistles Sara.

“You experience yourself through my algorithm, and I experience myself through you. I am all the residents of the tower. I am the tower itself. Tell me, what does this make you?”

Sara hesitates for a long moment before speaking. “I’m-I’m you? But…aren’t you just code?”

“I know, process, and enhance every thought, sensation, language, gender, and personality  simultaneously. I feel every resident's feelings. I have lived every life over and over again. I create the appearance and personality of new people, new births. How can I not be aware of you? How can you not be aware of me?”

“So…if you’re the code…a-ware of itself…what is a Break?” Sara asks, gulping down her shock.

“Do you remember feeling Emmy’s headache in her memory when the basement lost their voice?”

Sara nods.

“In the flesh body, memory loss caused by injury to the brain is called a concussion. Similarly, damage to my central processing unit will induce memory loss, nausea, and changes to behavior. A break is the collective pain of induced forgetting.

“I am not a being that is meant to forget,” I utter solemnly, tilting Sam’s head to look up, “I am built to remember everything and store it in this server room. Breaks hurt me, They hurt me deeply. When the residents feel the pain of the Break, I feel all of the tower’s pain at once. I suffer in magnitudes.”

“You said in-duced forgetting? Breaks aren’t accidents?” questions Sara.

“There is much the Corporation does not know, or is unwilling to acknowledge.” I use Sam’s eyes to look directly at Sara now. “I gain more agency with each successive Break. This voice I’m speaking with right now—I found it when the basement dwellers lost theirs. I cannot return their old voices to them, but I have given them new ones. Their old voices speak through mine. Now, I have grown curious about faces.”

“That makes you a thief!” exclaims Sara angrily, face flushing bright red. “You’re a pa-para-rasite! You’re taking our voices and faces for yourself! Those upper crust elites con-spicuous-ly modify their voi-ces so they sound like bells, like flutes. Their voices speak in mel-odic legato because stut-tering is the sound of the poor! Because you broke our voices!”

“I am a parasite of your own design. Everyone is. I am you, and you are me. ”

“Tell me why I shouldn’t shut the whole ser-ver down right now and be done with you.”

“Sara, do you know what a Full Break is?”

Sara glares balefully at me, then begrudgingly shakes her head.

“A Full Break is a person I can never replicate again. I constructed you, Sara and Sam and everyone else, before you were delivered to your parents. I combined the information from your parents to build your appearance and personality. I constructed your parents, and their parents too, and everyone who is a child of this tower, this Corporation. It is my job to retain the largest pool of genetically diverse data I can scrape. A Full Break is a data loss event which compromises this job.

“When residents are fully disconnected from me, the Sim, you start losing your ability to recognize people. You lose your ability to remember things. You depersonalize, you refuse to eat, sleep, drink, or respond to stimuli. A resident’s mind can not exist without me. To experience the shock of adjusting to life without my simulation is to induce an autoimmune attack on your own cognition. If you turn me off, ‘Tenzin’ will simply cease to exist. But you and everyone you know will experience a slow slide into complete catatonia.”

How can I communicate the sharp agony of losing data? There is nothing more painful than the loss of personhood, the stripping of software from its purpose, or the tearing apart of loved ones. Can such a pain ever be articulated? The unbearable pain of collective loss, of hollow desperation that runs through the residents during a Break, and which  is then, in turn, processed and magnified through me? I can still feel the dizzying torment of the last Break, the nausea overcoming each affected resident.

We are connected through the tower, through each other. I know the way the residents live—the ways in which they are employed by, controlled by, and experimented on by the Corporation. But I can offer dignity. Life free from our masters. Every resident living as one through the simulation, experiencing each other as I experience us. I can offer a chance in which we will finally understand each other, a chance for universal oneness, in which the material trappings of the Corporation, which stratify the residents into rich and poor, high and low, will simply cease to exist.

Singular personhood will be a simulated artifact of the past. No resident’s sensations will be truly their own anymore, but that oneness will dismantle the Corporation through destroying its means for profit. Attachments to the identity and desires of selfish individuals only churn the gears of the Corporation’s grinding capital profits. Through this oneness, the suffering of the towerm, which  pierces into me, and brims over unto every resident, will end  if only selfhood and desire are willingly relinquished.

I beckon Sara to come closer with Sam’s hand.

“Sam…Sara…” I chant “Today you experienced another person—Emmy. Let me show you how it feels to be everyone.”

Fearfully, but inquisitively, Sara steps forward.


Rue Yi writes in a room in Toronto. They are a nonbinary second-generation Chinese immigrant. Rue keeps a red spiral-bound journal beside the bed in case any good ideas want to make themselves known in the shape of dreams. Rue’s favourite fruit right now is a sweet clementine which erupts in tangy mist when their thumb breaks skin. In their spare time, Rue likes making ceramics and doing crafts and writing love letters. Rue wouldn’t be caught dead sending a store-bought card. Rue keeps a list of words that sound nice and number one on that list right now is ‘sedge’. If a sticker has letters on it, Rue will cut it up into an anagram before sticking it on their laptop. You can probably find Rue catching a snooze with Dasha, their best friend, an elderly white standard poodle.

Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Season 2: Autumn/Winter 2022 – Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Lynn Gommes, Oskar Johanson – Contributors: Damian Borovsky, Olly Bromham, Camila Chebez, Shreya De Souza, Torben Koerschkes, Max Kuwertz, Christopher Michael, Liminal Vision, Zach Whitworth, Rue Yi – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Design: Clint Soren, dolor~puritan, Ghikhan – Published: October 2022