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The flight back to Chicago was quiet. True to his word, Murdoch had sent first a cargo helicopter (not sure where he got THAT from) and then a jet to carry me and Espinoza as well as the precious cargo all the way up north. Despite my attempts to cheer her up with outrageous stories about things I had lived through and seen (some of them were even true), she barely said a word and adamantly refused to discuss the last few hours we had spent in the camp. So be it, I thought, I’d learn everything soon anyway.
A car picked us both up. We caught a glimpse of the hardware being unloaded by men with Perihelion badges on their otherwise unremarkable black security uniforms before the driver pulled away from the runway and sped across the city, clearly eager to meet a deadline set by an unforgiving master. After an extended flight, the drive was mercifully short and we suddenly found ourselves at Perihelion’s front door – quite literally. Ferguson was already waiting with arms folded in her signature “I’m the boss” position that we both were already familiar with, judging by Espinoza’s derisive snort.
Ferguson was watching us as we slowly got out of the car (of course, Espinoza forgot something and had to go back) and approached her. She nodded.
Damn, she’s colder than usual. We must be in some real trouble now. But at least I’d get to bring up the topic I was thinking about the whole trip. I caught up with her as we walked past the reception.
“So, I know it’s maybe not the time right now but I wanted to bring up the tech we were using. Those Russian vehicles didn’t seem like the right choice...”
She stopped in her tracks and looked at me incredulously.
“You think THAT is the biggest worry you’ve got right now?”
Not going to lie, I was taken aback a bit. Usually, when it comes to military matters, people get pretty excited to hear some feedback first-hand, even before their boss.
“Well... I mean, I thought I’d just give you a quick rundown...”
“No, Mister Thorpe. You’ve made your bed, now you get to lie in it. We won’t have you spend another month in a desert training everyone for something different. Besides, I’ve already seen the battle results. You performed... adequately. The weapons you have now will do. You MIGHT receive some additional funding and perhaps even new vehicles. Gail’s tank suffered an engine breakdown and we’ll have to get her a spare one. But,” she concluded, “that all depends on how the next several hours will go.”
We stopped in front of a massive wooden door with intricate carving, the kind usually reserved to monarchs, despots or mafia bosses. I wasn’t sure which category did Murdoch fall into but I was dying to find out.
“Good luck,” said Ferguson before knocking on the door and moving aside. It was time to enter the lion’s den.
There was a bright, sunny day outside but little of the light penetrated the gloom the office behind the door was somehow full of – as if a layer of darkness emanating from the person sitting behind a massive, ornate wooden desk covered the entire room. In his twilight sepulcher, Murdoch sat with his hands clasped together, staring at us. Without saying a word, he pointed at two chairs in front of the table.
Two other people who clearly didn’t want to be there were standing next to the desk, shifting and fidgeting about while simultaneously trying to avoid Murdoch’s attention. One was an older man with fuzzy white hair in a lab coat wearing a t-shirt and a pair of washed-out jeans underneath. If you were to imagine a 21st century Doctor Frankenstein, this would be EXACTLY how you’d do that. The shirt immediately caught my attention as it featured a red panda with a menacing grin on its face. Somehow, despite the situation, it almost made me chuckle. The other person, a tall black man with a grey beard was visibly calmer and generally unassuming. He even gave me a nod as we entered.
The words came from Murdoch and I immediately remembered why we were here. As I made my way to our assigned seats, I started noticing more details and it definitely was unlike any office I’ve ever seen before. The walls were inlaid with stone slabs featuring the same strange writing we’d seen earlier on Murdoch’s drive. Even the table was marked so, although unlike the rock surrounding us, it didn’t feel ancient. There was a sandstone statue on the desk though, an intricately sculpted bust of a young woman. From what I could see, it was a masterpiece, each strand of hair expertly crafted to bring whoever was the model to life for all eternity. I couldn’t see the face as it was turned towards Murdoch but judging from the position, it was clearly someone important to him.
The back of the room was even darker than the rest and I had the distinct feeling that someone was hiding in the shadows, waiting and observing our every move. But the shade was too thick for my eyes to penetrate and all I was left with (aside from the two scientists) was Murdoch’s stern visage.
“You certainly made a mess of things, haven’t you...”
Murdoch’s tone wasn’t exactly angry, nor did he sound terribly disappointed, it was more as if he was stating a fact – a fact that had cost him, but a fact nonetheless. Once again, I couldn’t believe this was the same charming businessman I had met weeks ago, who treated me to a dinner and an outrageous sum of money. Sometimes we see people the way we want to, I guess.
For a moment, Murdoch looked at the statue and suddenly there was weariness in his eyes I hadn’t noticed before. He seemed lost for a moment, tired of the entire situation, and was looking to whoever’s face the statue represented for comfort – comfort that wouldn’t come of course, but the short glance seemed to give him at least some peace of mind. Somehow, this made him... more human in my eyes but the moment passed as swiftly as it came and he was once again measuring us with his cold piercing gaze.
“Begin. Tell me everything and do not leave a single detail out.”
And so began the two hours that felt more like an interrogation than a debriefing. Murdoch was simply listening most of the time, only asking additional questions here and there, while both scientists (now sitting as far away from him as they could without appearing impolite) were making notes.
I was trying to remember and mention pretty much every detail. Espinoza was, on the other hand, reluctant to speak more than she absolutely had to but Murdoch didn’t seem to mind – he was interested in my account of things far more than hers. I described the fateful night minute by minute while attempting to leave nothing out – the missing scouts, the strange voice, enemy vehicles and the final discovery of the remote-controlled tanks...
The interrupting voice belonged to one of the scientists. Murdoch gave him a quick glance but the man clearly couldn’t hide his excitement any longer.
“What do you mean?” I frowned.
“Not remote-controlled. Our preliminary analysis shows the vehicles were not drones. In fact,” he shrugged, “they were quite ordinary. Except for the shift in...”
He stopped mid-sentence, blinked and gave Murdoch a cursory glance, clearly remembering he wasn’t supposed to mention something... yet.
“But... there was nobody inside and we haven’t recovered a single body.”
“Ah, yes. How rude of me,” Murdoch responded instead, finally acknowledging the presence of his companions.
“Meet Doctor Leonard Haswell, our research and development lead...”
The ‘mad scientist’ gave us a friendly wave with a tight-lipped smile.
“....and Doctor Abdu Az’dule, in charge of the investigation.”
Now it was the black researcher’s time to nod, which he did in a far more dignified fashion. This man clearly took himself far more seriously than his superior and it suddenly occurred to me that they complemented each other perfectly, almost comically so – I had to suppress an urge to smile back at them. Didn’t seem proper.
And then it was finally the time to mention our stunt with the Perihelion drive and its strange contents. Murdoch was just staring at me the entire time I was explaining how we got inside and what we saw as well as the strange effect the footage had on us. The scientists were exchanging excited glances constantly at that point, almost itching to say something. And then the room fell silent once more as I had nothing more to add, my tale finished. All that remained was the judgment and sentence.
Murdoch kept quiet for several minutes, just sitting there and staring at nothing in particular, thinking. None of us dared to interrupt him – I felt I was in enough trouble already and Espinoza... no clue what was going through her head. Finally, he looked up, not at me but at her:
“I suppose now would be a good time to tell him.”
She just nodded. Damn it, I KNEW she was hiding something. But in the end, it wasn’t her spilling the beans. Murdoch turned towards Dr. Haswell instead.
“Doctor, if you would...?”
The ‘mad scientist’ nodded and smiled at me encouragingly before leaning against the back of his chair, his arms crossed.
“Now, Mister Thorpe, what do you know about the multiverse concept?”
Bullshit. Utter and complete bullshit – that’s the first thing that crossed my mind. No way. I mean, I love sci-fi just as much as the next guy but... really? Who do they take me for?
I laughed out loud while getting off my chair. I mean, it sounded like a bad joke, had to be. And yet...
Nobody else was laughing. Espinoza and both scientists clearly felt awkward after my reaction and Murdoch looked mildly displeased.
His order came with an unexpected intensity and I felt compelled to slowly lower myself back into the chair, the smirk wiped off my face.
“Mister Thorpe,” Murdoch began only to make a short pause, “this may sound like a joke to you, but I assure you what you are about to learn is VERY real, as are the consequences of disregarding my instructions. Now, I understand it’s a lot to take in and you are trying to figure out what do we have to gain by feeding you such an outrageous story. I assure you, the answer is absolutely nothing. Were it not for the current situation, I’d have been happy to just let you play soldier and guard my property. But...”
“But the circumstances and your irresponsible tinkering with things you do not understand – yet – have forced my hand. And I am sorry to say, leaving is no longer an option for you. I am sure you understand why.”
About the time he was finishing, I was already contemplating a number of important things, such as the distance between me and the door, the way I’d have to twist my arm to punch Espinoza (who was now watching me very intently) and whether anyone in the room had a gun (I didn’t, left my whole gear in the trunk of the car outside). My plans were put on a hold as I noticed Espinoza most definitely didn’t forget to bring hers and (what was worse) she noticed the object of my attention and moved her hand so that she’d be able to access it on moment’s notice – definitely faster than I’d ever be able to make my move.
She looked me right in the eyes, her face stiff with anxiety, and shook her head. Murdoch also clearly noticed what was going on and sighed.
“There’s no need to make this truly unpleasant, Mister Thorpe.”
“Sam, please don’t make me do this,” added Espinoza, almost pleading like the night before. It felt really uncomfortable. I had my doubts about a lot of things but seeing her posture, I harbored no illusions – she’d shoot me in a heartbeat.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. The odds weren’t in my favor and everything indicated that I was way out of my depth here. Simply put, if things went tits up, I’d never leave the room alive. Might as well see where the rabbit hole leads and bide my time. After all, there must be some kind of way out of here (said the joker to the thief). I sighed and threw my hands in the air in a mock surrender. It wasn’t the safest of actions but it was oddly satisfying to see everyone except for Murdoch flinch.
“Fine, fine... doc, hit me.”
Espinoza pulled away from me so I wouldn’t be able to execute any stupid ideas but the room seemed to relax a little bit. One of the massive stone slabs on the walls moved aside, uncovering a large screen with all sorts of numbers and equations on it as everyone turned their attention to the man who began to explain the nature of life, the universe and everything.
The most common way people imagine the multiverse theory is that any smallest choice creates a branch of sorts, a separate reality. This is fundamentally false, luckily for us, otherwise identifying separate realities would become utterly unmanageable – imagine a reality split for every subatomic particle movement!
The nature of what we’ve discovered is as follows – and mind you, I am grossly oversimplifying here and some things I can’t even begin to explain because even I don’t understand them. That’s how science works, gentlemen. And a lady, sorry. Anyway.
Each separate reality – we call them Instances – is defined by life. Yes, the very life itself. We have... developed, or rather discovered a method that reads the identifier of every separate Instance. The identifier – I’m going to call it ID from now on – is a number, a mathematical representation of every single living being that has ever lived, or will live. We THINK that it’s somehow related to the DNA, but were unable to find the exact connection.
At this moment, all we can identify are the strings belonging to separate... let’s call them Entities. I mean, it’s complicated – imagine, is the bacteria living in your intestines a separate being or a part of you? It’s separate, by the way... but I digress again.
Anyway, the ID. We can isolate an ID of a specific Entity but it does not tell us of its nature. We can only guess that similar Entity ID in different universes will lead us to a similar creature. So far it’s been the case. However, what we CAN do is isolate the Entities living at this very moment. What also helps us is that for reasons unknown, some very similar realities are shifted in time. In layman’s terms, we can peer into the future and the past. Time travel in our own reality is impossible, of course – Einstein’s postulates still apply. But under certain circumstances, we can peer into the worlds where specific choices have been made and see their consequences. As you can imagine, this is a massive opportunity for our improvement and we’ve been using it, but that is a discussion for another time.
But it gets even more complicated. Taking our reality as the proverbial heart of all creation (the return of geocentrism, how ironic!), we have developed an offset system to the ID mechanic to indicate how “far” things are from our own reality. Realities adjacent to ours with similar IDs are similar to ours – sometimes almost completely identical, except for the occasional time shift. Things get really wild with larger offsets – laws of physics not applying, pretty terrifying stuff actually. There are realities where light or gravity does not exist but they still contain life, imagine that!
Actually, no, don’t. We’ve lost some good people trying to observe things not meant for human mind.
And, finally, let me explain how the transfer between realities works. Yes, you can transport things between worlds using our technology, isn’t that amazing? Well, no, no it really isn’t. Reality is... imagine it like a balloon and we live on its surface. In fact, the surface is defined by the life in that reality. Yes, I know how strange it sounds but bear with me. We’re almost finished.
Removing a single Entity will poke a small hole of sorts in it. The smaller and more insignificant the Entity, the smaller the hole. And what happens when you pierce a balloon with, say, a needle? Okay, not the right example. Reality doesn’t explode. Not a balloon then, a football. Have you played football as a child, Mister Thorpe? Good.
As you pierce it, it deflates, collapses onto itself and so does a pierced reality. The process is slow at first but accelerates towards the end. It can take years, decades even, but is completely irreversible. But you wouldn’t know – the world around you doesn’t disappear. It ceases to be. Big difference there – disappearance implies you notice any difference but this process is far more insidious. Your mind isn’t really built to comprehend such things. You don’t notice. Your brother may disappear but you won’t search for him – it’s as if he never existed in the first place. Only at the end do the changes cause irreconcilable differences between perception and your reality and that’s when... well, you go insane. Not a nice way to go. So, for these reasons, we do NOT transfer anything from other realities. We’ve learned the hard way.
By the way, even those who are simply observing the events from another reality are affected. We call it Bleed. Bleed are small particles of the other reality bleeding into ours. It has two effects – first, it causes the feeling of intense nausea and terror. These cannot be avoided using medication and we neither understand the reason why this is happening, nor the underlying principle. The second problem is what’s colloquially known as the Mandela effect. False memories. You know how some people remember things differently? Berenstone Bears versus Berenstein Bears, Nelson Mandela actually surviving prison... that kind of thing.
Now for some good news. You don’t have to worry about what I just discussed, I think. As far as we know, we are the only reality with this kind of technology. In many other realities, I am a botanist – imagine that! I’ve always had a knack for plants...
Actually, there ARE a lot of strange things going on with this reality – two adjacent Instances have an unusual number of Uniques. So you understand, Uniques are outliers – Entities that exist nowhere else in the multiverse. Yes, it completely contradicts what we just discussed, but it is so. Mister Murdoch here, he’s a Unique. So is Miss Espinoza. And... so are you. Isn’t it interesting? Anyway, that about sums it up.
Well, shit. For God knows how many times in the last couple of days, I had the feeling of utter disbelief and about a million questions. Starting with a simple one.
“So the footage we’ve seen... that was real? Like, real, real?”
“Yes,” answered Espinoza sadly.
“Like, how do you know? For all we know, this all could be some made up BS!”
“Well, I...”, she began to answer.
“Because she was there, Samuel. We pulled her out of that reality and thus caused it to end,” responded Murdoch instead. Seems like finishing other people’s sentences is a bit of a habit of his.
“And doom an entire universe? Why?”
“We did not know this would happen and she was dying. Uniques are exceedingly rare. Uniques like you even more so – interestingly enough, you had a doppelganger in Espinoza’s reality, the only known case of something like that happening. Sadly, we couldn’t have saved him as he was already dead by the time we discovered Gail, a past ID a trace of his existence.”
He took a small pause before continuing.
“There’s no Gail Espinoza in our universe. Although it’s almost as if her reality and ours were somehow interconnected... too many coincidences for it to be otherwise. As a famous man once said, God does not play dice.”
My respect for Espinoza grew each passing second. Imagining her being alone in this world, dragged across space and time only to watch her old world disappear along with everyone she knew. A lesser mind would have been crushed but not hers. I made another mental note – to ask her about the other world, the rules, the people there... everything. But not now, now was time for another big question, perhaps the biggest one.
“So, what now?”
Murdoch shifted in his seat, clamping his hands once again.
“That depends on you, Mister Thorpe. We can’t let you go, but we are prepared to extend a contract. A most lucrative contract, I might add. But there is much work to be done.”
He leaned forward, giving everyone in the room a long hard look.
“For decades I have helped this country flourish. Successfully, I might add. But now, everything seems to be unraveling. Too fast. Empires rise, empires fall, but never this quickly. Someone is trying to interfere in the world we have created, bring it low for reasons unknown. I want to find who it is and why are they doing that. Secondly, this world needs technology, technology that we might find... elsewhere. Our research department,” he nodded towards Haswell, “informs me that we are on a cusp of a breakthrough that will allow us to temporarily visit other worlds without causing a reality breakdown.”
“And, finally,” he concluded, “we need to find out more about our mysterious attackers. Where they came from and what they want. It’s possible everything’s connected – how, that will be up to you to find. You’ll receive resources, initiated men and women, access to technologies you haven’t even dreamed of. Now tell me, is that an opportunity you want to pass on?”
Everyone left and the room was quiet once again, just the way he liked it. He ran his fingers across the statue’s sandstone. He rarely touched her lately for fears of damaging the irreplaceable object, sculpted in ages past after the memory of her. How eons change people, he pondered. First, there was a memory of his exile and all he left behind – especially HER, then a memory of a memory he’d desperately cling to and then... nothing, just an old piece of history none would recognize except for him – and one other.
“Soon, my sun. Soon.”
The shadow behind him shifted, betraying the presence of another person hitherto hidden.
“Still sentimental, brother?”
The voice, old and somehow comforting, soothed his troubled mind as it always has. An old man, a venerable man, stepped into the light. This came as no surprise to Murdoch – for that was the name he used at the time – since he invited his oldest and closest ally personally to witness what could turn into an era-defining moment.
“At long last,” the man continued.
“A few more and we’ll be able to plot our course through the aether like the true star mariners we are.”
Somehow, a doubt crept into Murdoch’s mind.
“What if... what if we made a mistake, En? What if we acted too soon? The enemies are on the move.”
“Then we will fight them like we did in the days of old. You have already gathered your warriors. You have wealth beyond measure. You have weapons of gold, steel and quartz. We are ready,” declared the other one confidently.
“Hm,” pondered Murdoch, once again lost in thought, “but we haven’t gotten so far without a backup plan. Bring me the Black Company file, search for two names. Grey, Seagrove.”
Hours later, alone and half-dreaming, he tuned to the ebb and flow of the void to hear its call, to feel its soft waves slip through his fingers. Nothing would stand in his way, he thought. And deep below, the monolith hummed with approval.
Die ganze Geschichte kann hier abgerufen werden (auf Englisch):
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