You won’t believe my morning.
I went out on my daily excursion to sit on the front step of my building for ten minutes holding my breath when people walked by. Normally, I spend the time diddling around my phone, but I forgot to bring my phone this morning, so I just looked around.
As I was taking in the emptiness of the street, a little glint caught my eye in a patch of dirt on the sidewalk. I bent over to look closer, and there was the glint again. It wasn’t a normal glint like from a shiny rock or a piece of metal—it was a little pinprick of flashing light.
Intrigued, I was now on all fours looking closer. And I saw the most surreal thing.
Like tiny houses. Each about a millimeter high, like ornately carved grains of sand.
I was either dreaming or looking at the coolest, cutest little art project ever.
As I examined the microscopic village, I noticed what looked like a scrawl of teeny letters on the dirt next to the houses. It said:
PUT YOUR THUMB ON THE OVAL
Now fully having the time of my life, I looked around for an oval. I searched for a few minutes with no luck until I saw, a bit outside the area where the houses were, a little strip of silver, maybe two millimeters long and a millimeter wide. Careful not to damage the houses, I put my thumb on it.
I won’t be able to accurately describe what happened next, but I’ll try my best. Imagine if the ground underneath you suddenly felt like a furiously spinning liquid whirlpool, combined with the feeling of freefalling, combined with your entire visual field turning into a blurry gray, combined with the worst nausea of your life.
And then, just as fast as it started, it all stopped. I cowered for a few seconds trying to catch my breath, and when I opened my eyes, I wasn’t in New York anymore.
I was on a pastoral ranch, surrounded by big log cabins and a bunch of people staring down at me as I looked up at them, still on all fours. One of the people said to me, “Are you okay?”
“I feel okay, but I’m having severe hallucinations.”
They all started cheering and hugging and high-fiving each other.
“Are you doctors?” I asked.
“He thinks he has the virus,” one of them said, and they all roared with laughter.
A woman shushed the crowd and said, “Okay, back to work everyone. I’ll give him the briefing.”
The others left, and the woman smiled at me. “I’m Layla.”
“Hi Layla. Do I have coronavirus?” I asked.
“You don’t have coronavirus,” she said. “You’re just tiny. We shrunk you to 1/10,000th of your normal size. You haven’t moved anywhere, you’ve just gotten much smaller.”
“Fuck,” I explained.
“Yeah, I imagine it’s a lot to take in,” she said. “Let me try to clear things up. There are different tiers of human life, not just the one you’re used to. Our tier is exactly 1/10,000th the size of yours. In yours, people are about 180 centimeters tall. Here, we’re about 0.18 millimeters tall. We’d say 180 micrometers tall, but I know in your world, micrometers don’t mean very much.”
I stared at her. “You’re telling me I’m 0.18 millimeters tall right now?”
“Correct,” she said. “About half the size of a dust mite, or a little taller than the width of a human hair up in your world. A person in your world with really good eyesight could barely see you, if they looked closely. And see that house over there?” She pointed to a large, three-story house. “In the scale you’re used to, that would be about 10 meters high. Here, it’s about the size of a cubic millimeter—the size of a grain of sand on the sidewalk. Some of our houses were actually carved from grains of sand.”
“Hold on.” I stopped her. “I’m very scared of bugs. I wrote a whole post about it once. Are there giant bugs here?”
“Yes and no. There are no bugs in our village because we lined the perimeter with a poison that kills any insects that come too close. But you wouldn’t want to walk too far away from the houses—about three centimeters from here, you’ll cross that barrier and run into things you won’t like.”
“How about flying bugs?” I asked diligently.
“Oh, I haven’t mentioned time yet. Okay so time here moves 100 times faster than it does up on your tier. Time scales up inversely with the square root of the size difference. So 1/10,000th of the size means 100X faster time. So when a flying insect starts to descend into the village, our defense crew has over a minute here to handle the situation. They fire a jet of air at the insect that deflects it away from us. Same deal for dogs. Every year or two, a dog will pee on us. The defense crew keeps track of every dog walking by. At 1/100th the speed of our world, we first see an approaching dog about ten minutes before it gets near us, and by the time a peeing dog is lifting its leg over us, we’ve had plenty of time to draw the tarps, which roll over the entire village and cover everything—the same tarps we use every time it rains or snows.”
“Good to know. But why am I here?”
“Right, I was about to get to that. After a heated debate in the village, we voted to bring someone from your world here, because we wanted to show you something. We’ve been trying to catch someone’s eye in your world for three of your weeks. That’s almost six years here. That’s why everyone was so excited to see you.”
“How did you catch my attention?”
“With that.” She pointed at a tube on the roof of one of the houses that looked like large telescope. “That’s a super-powered laser that we’ve been trying to shine in people’s eyes as they walked by on the sidewalk. But no one noticed. Until today. Way out on the horizon, we piled boulders into the shapes of letters that spelled out the instructions, and you were dicking around just hard enough that you actually bent down to read them. We’re thankful.”
“What was that oval in the instructions?”
I was standing on a metallic oval about the size of a swimming pool.
“This is our trans-tier station. When you touched this with your thumb, it shrunk you down to our tier.
“Wait.” I looked up at her. “Do I live here now?”
She laughed. “Don’t worry. We’ll send you back to your world in a little bit. Now come with me.”
I walked with Layla towards the other side of the village. I looked around. Everyone was staring at me. Some people waved.
“What’s that?” I asked Layla, pointing up at what looked like a sheet of color stretching into the sky.
“That’s your apartment building. All you can see from here is the first brick. That band of light way up in the sky is the mortar between the first and second brick in the wall.”
We walked into a small building and entered a room with a long white table in the middle. Layla turned towards a wall on the side of the room, and suddenly the outline of a square formed in the wall. The square moved outwards into the room and rotated downwards until it was parallel to the floor. Layla pulled a tweezer-like tool from her pocket and carefully pinched what looked like nothing a few centimeters above the panel.
She walked over to me. “Open your palm.”
She put her tweezers into my hand and dropped something the size of a grain of sand. I raised up my palm to look at it. It was reddish and fuzzy.
“What is it?” I asked.
“SARS-CoV-2. What you’ve been calling ‘coronavirus.’”
I flung it across the room. “What the fuck.”
Layla laughed, touched the square, and the little object flew back across the room into its spot above the square.
“It can’t hurt you here. The viruses of your world are way too big to do any damage in our bodies.”
I stared at her, trying to process the situation. “How do you know about coronavirus? And how did you…get one?”
“Oh we know everything about your world. Your tier moves so slowly compared to ours that your technology is eons behind ours. Our tools have allowed us to watch your world since your prehistoric days. As for how we got a coronavirus particle, we didn’t get it—we made it.”
“You made the coronavirus?”
“Well, with a little help. Follow me.”
Again I followed Layla, again dumbfounded, this time out of the building toward a fenced-in area outside. When we got close, a door in the fence opened and inside, we stood together on the edge of what looked like a barren circle of land.
Layla opened her hand. The little virus was sitting neatly on her palm. “SARS-CoV-2 is a standard sized Coronavirus—about 120 nanometers in diameter. 120 nanometers is ridiculously small in your world, but in ours, you can roll it around in your fingers.
“Cool…let me think about that for a minute.”
“Wait, I can explain this better. In your world, this is a perfect size analogy:
SARS-CoV-2 : grain of sand :: grain of sand : house
In both cases, the relationship is 1-to-10,000, which is also the relationship of our world to yours. In your world, your apartment building is huge, a grain of sand is tiny, and this coronavirus is unfathomably microscopic. In ours, the virus is tiny, a grain of your sand is huge enough to live in, and your apartment building is unfathomably large.”
“Now, what’s a virus made of? Atoms. And atoms are about 0.1 nanometers in diameter—about 1/1,000th of the diameter of a SARS-CoV-2 particle. That’s small even for us. An atom is almost as small for us as a virus is for you. Constructing a virus requires incredibly complex engineering and tools that can interact with the quantum field. We can’t do it ourselves.”
I looked at the ground.
She pulled me toward the center of the circle of land and then pulled me to an abrupt stop.
I bent over as far as I could and strained my eyes. No. Fucking. Way.
Another microscopic world.
“Yup. That’s the tier below us. Give me your thumb.”
She carefully placed the virus particle onto the ground. Then she guided my hand to the ground, touching both of our thumbs to a little metallic spot.
Whirlpool. Falling. Gray. Nausea. Misery.
I eventually got a hold of my trembling and drooling and opened my eyes. In every direction, as far as I could see, stretched a hazy blue-ish / purple-ish plane. It also began to dawn on me that I wasn’t standing or sitting on anything—I was floating.
After about a minute of wondering what the hell was going on in my life, a patch of the sky darkened. The dark region became smaller and more defined until it condensed into Layla floating next to me.
“Please don’t leave me again,” I said.
“Sorry, my thumb hit the pad a split second later than yours did. Time moves 100 times faster here than up there, so you got to spend some reflective time here by yourself.”
“Okay where are we?”
“We’re outside your apartment building. Remember?”
“Righttt. So what size are we?”
“We went down the same jump you did when you transitioned from your world to ours—we shrunk to 1/10,000th of our previous size. So you’re now 18 nanometers tall. If you stood on the edge of a cross-section of a human hair, it would take you about two hours to walk across it.”
“Time here is now going by at 100X the speed of time in my world, which means it’s moving 10,000 times faster than the speed of time in yours. You could spend a year here and less than an hour would pass in your world.”
“Kind of like Inception?”
“Not really. Anyway, nothing down here works the way it does in our worlds. Like see how the ground is all eternal and purply?”
“That’s not really ground, and it’s not really purple. When you’re this small, there aren’t any solid objects in the sense you understand. And your eyes are too small now to perceive the visible light spectrum.”
“So what the hell?”
“I don’t really get it either. But the people who live here have incredibly advanced ways of manipulating the quantum field so we can feel like we’re intact humans, floating in place, seeing purple. They set it up this way because it’s something we can make sense of.”
“That’s nice of them. Where are they all anyway?”
“The thing is, they don’t like our world, and they really don’t like your world. They interact with us occasionally, when it’s necessary, but they’ll never allow you or anyone from your world to see them or know anything about how they live. This is actually the first time anyone from your world has been allowed down here, other than Andy Kaufman, who’s lived here since 1984.”
“Then why am I allowed to be here?”
“So I can show you this.”
Layla straightened her arm in front of her, with her palm facing outwards. Her palm lit up and when it did, a bizarre-looking giant object was revealed in front of us.
“This,” Layla said, “is SARS-CoV-2. Down here, it’s the size of a house.”
I looked up at the vast virus in front of me. It looked nothing like it had when it was a fuzzy grain of sand in my hand. It was transparent, like a massive, intricately structured, sphere-shaped jellyfish. There was a kind of furious movement within the transparency, but I couldn’t see anything specific moving. It was confusing.
Layla motioned for me to come close to the virus. She took my hand and placed my palm onto the virus’s almost invisible surface. It felt kind of like palming a grape bunch except instead of grapes it was tapioca balls like the ones in those bubble teas—if the tapioca balls were vibrating so vigorously that it felt a little like being mildly electroshocked, like when you put your finger in an electrical outlet. It was an unpleasant sensation, though not quite painful, and super weird and cool-feeling.
“Pull one off,” Layla said.
It took me a few tries to latch onto one of the atoms, because they’re “slippery” (quotes because there is no word for what it felt like, but “slippery” gets the general idea across), and when I finally got one and pulled, there was a lot of resistance. When I pulled it, it dragged the adjacent atoms along with it, and the harder I pulled, the more ferociously and unpleasantly it vibrated. Finally it snapped free. I looked at my fist—I had an atom.
Layla smiled. “Cool right?”
“So cool. Can I keep it?”
“Sure good luck with that.”
I was so awe-struck by so many things, I had forgotten how intensely confused I was.
“Wait, so why did you make this?”
She turned towards me. “As I said, because of the way time moves—”
“Your world has been around a lot longer than ours.”
“Yes. And this world we’re in now has been around a lot longer than mine. They know much more about everything than we do, and they can do things we can’t even begin to understand. The stuff they can do is so over our heads they can’t even explain it to us. And we’re that far ahead of your world.
For a long time, as advanced as this world was, it relied on us to preserve our world for its own survival. It exists on a patch of dirt in our village. If our village were destroyed, they would be destroyed with it. But a while back, they worked out the technology for how to be location independent, which means they can move from wherever they are to any other place in the universe instantly.
We don’t have that technology yet. We tried to learn from them, but we couldn’t grasp the fundamental ideas well enough to develop it ourselves. So we’re stuck in our location.”
“In New York City?”
“Yup. We migrated here in the 1800s when we determined it would be a good place to interface with your world, should the need ever arise. We’re also not the only people in our world. There are lots of villages like ours in different parts of the Earth. Once we connected with you, the others stopped broadcasting their location. There’s no reason for more than one of us to be revealed to your world.
For most of time, Earth was a safe and stable home for our world. But over the last century, your world has been advancing exponentially in technology but remaining stagnant in wisdom. You’re rapidly gaining tremendous powers but still behaving like short-sighted primates. The voice of wisdom is there, but it’s being trampled over by political parties, religions, and nations too mired in blind conflict to lift their heads up and see the bigger picture.”
“It’s funny you say that Layla. I’m actually writing a whole thing about—”
“Oh I know. We did our research on everyone who lives in your vicinity so we’d know how to communicate with the person we brought to us if we caught someone’s attention. That’s why I’m speaking English and speaking in the odd way you do. Your little series is cute, even if it took us forever to read—but it will have limited effect. Your world is stubborn about growing up. And in the process of destroying yourselves, we believe you’ll destroy us as well.”
“So you’re trying to kill us off with a pandemic.”
“If we wanted to kill you off, you’d all be dead right now. It’s an option we hope we don’t have to use. We were once like you and we empathize with your struggle.
We created this coronavirus to fall into a certain sweet spot—not damaging enough to destroy your world, but bad enough to cause a long and scary global crisis. Short of an alien attack, it is the one thing that could make all humans in your world feel like they’re on the same team against a common enemy. The first and most crucial step on the road to a long-lasting species is the epiphany that you truly are a single team, alone in a dark and dangerous universe. We’re hoping the virus can help push you in that direction.”
“I feel like there was a better way to do this.”
“We probably could have thought a little harder about it.”
“Yeah cause it’s going pretty badly up there is the thing.”
“Totes. Anyway, we couldn’t make the virus on our own. It’s hard enough to make something that small and complex that involves atomic and subatomic construction, but we wanted the virus to be precisely as harmful as it is. We needed help. The tier below us is less vulnerable to your world than we are, but for reasons I’m not entirely sure about, they also believe living in a multi-tiered ecosystem may be important in the future—so they share our interests. They agreed to build the virus for us.”
“How did you manage to get the virus into our world?” I asked.
“It’s funny. You have to imagine it from our perspective. If you’re us, the world you’re planning to transform is a planet with nearly an AU diameter, full of 18-kilometer tall people—people so tall, your world’s airplanes could accidentally fly into their belly buttons. Now imagine you’re standing on that planet, smaller than one of their dust mites, pinching between your fingers something the size of a grain of sand on your scale. You find your way onto one of these giants’ football-field-size teeth, and you flick the grain of sand into his kilometer-wide chasm of a mouth. And that’s supposed to change the trajectory of their future. It seems impossible.
“And yet. With some very clever maneuvers, we flicked our little particle into the mouth of an unlucky giant, and it did the trick. By the way, we were dying when you blamed it on a pangolin of all things.”
“He seemed guilty. I still don’t understand why you brought me down here.”
“We weren’t originally planning to reveal any of this backstory to your world. But after watching things unfold for the first few weeks, we don’t see enough of the effect we were hoping for. Maybe if your world learns that there are other worlds out there—worlds that did manage to triumph in the wisdom game—it’ll empower the wise voices to stand up with a bit more courage in this struggle and in even greater challenges that lie ahead. It’s a long shot, but these are desperate times.”
“I guess it’s worth a try. I’ll write a post explaining what I learned from you.”
“And tweet out the post and send it out to your email list and stuff?”
“Ready to go back up to your life? Only 23 seconds have passed there since you shrunk down.”
“Yeah let’s do it.”
Layla and I moved ourselves on top of the big metal oval.
“I’m going to increase my size 10,000-fold and yours 100,000,000-fold, so you can go back home in one shot…which is a good thing because transporting up is even worse than transporting down.”
“I have one more question.”
“How many tiers are there?” I asked.
“No one knows for sure. The people on this atomic-level tier tell us they know of at least one tier below them, though they won’t tell us more than that. And no one seems to know about tiers above yours. Your world is thinking about that, with all your multiverse talk. We’re still working on that one too.”
“If you ever figure it out, will you let me know?”
“One thing at a time.”
We touched our thumbs to the metal.
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As discussed, why bugs ruin everything.
Another time we transported ourselves.
And a puzzle for your quarantine.