The moment you’ve all been waiting for…
I hereby announce the beginning of a serialized/episodic/maybe just a bunch of short stories set in the same universe novel of a sort.
This project started a couple of NANOWRIMOs ago, and I actually wanted to write this in an online text game website thing that Fallen London ran, but then they shut it down and there went that idea. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worm_(web_serial) is the mother of all web serials in the English language, I think, and if he has written it I can too! Says Lin with an air of dream-like optimism.
Trust the process. Move back the deadline. Excuse or well founded action? At least it’s out now. I think it was more of me getting tired of reading my own stuff than actually believing it ready for the cruel world outside of my brain.
Without further ado:
As the spout of wine flowed down the narrow rimmed glass, it left behind a bright orange smudge that soon melted into the wide but shallow pool of burnt umber at the bottom. I took a long look at the label of the black bottle. It wasn’t even in English.
“Thank you,” Jane said as she took the small glass a third full of rich umber and raised it to her pale lips, the colour of a drop of blood in water, enough to attract sharks. Maybe she was the shark.
“Aged 120 years, mmm. You sure can’t get anything like this Lightside. Walter?”
I poured myself a drip of the special wine she brought as her partner sipped. He said something in agreement, enjoying the flavour. However, I couldn’t touch this thick liquid; consuming something so much older than me felt… wrong.
Jane swirled the mystical wine around her glass and raised it to the faint ceiling lamp. “Tastes of honey, wool and roses, delicate mushrooms growing from bark… I could go on forever. It’s my treat, Arc. Try some, you’ll love it,” Jane said across the round table, hitting me with what I thought to be a smile.
I heard myself say “maybe later, thanks,” and glanced down.
She was bald, no eyebrows, not a hair, and I found that slightly disturbing for the first time at these close quarters. Her white skin displayed a sense of agelessness, and with the sharp thin lines of her face, she looked to be perpetually glaring at everything. Luckily I learned in the past hectic week and a half that just because Jane was staring at you didn’t mean Jane was mad at you.
They wore white t-shirts and shorts, somewhat plain, but I’ve learned hoppers always have their reasons. I was dressed simply and formally with a suit vest and dress pants that hopefully conformed to my self image of a bony white man.
“So,” Jane clasped her hands on the wooden table and directed all attention to me. “Now that we’re settled down for once, what do you want to talk about?”
There were only the three of us in my dimly lit bar, and when it came, silence surged over the spacious room.
I responded carefully. “I’ve been wondering–if it isn’t too much trouble–how did you two meet each other?”
Walter and Jane’s team of hoppers had overthrown everything I knew, saved my life and this establishment Arkin, but we were still acquaintances. The crisis was over, I wanted to know them better, but where to start when they were living in a completely different universe? I opted for a default question.
They exchanged looks and various one word questions before settling on this:
“Avalon,” Jane stated, and slid her bottle out of the way, the glass on wood sound like a signal.
“Hey,” Walter pointed out, “we’re probably gonna have lots of inside jokes on this one. Heads up.” He then passed speaking rights with an open palm to Jane on his right.
Dark blue hair wasn’t as off-putting to me, even though it gave Walter an artificial live-action feel, especially with his straight hair standing upright.
He laughed often, and was infinity more casual than Jane. He had a healthy beige complexion, some smile wrinkles, and I judged him around fifty, much older than me. But Jane had mentioned she was far older than him. I reminded myself age didn’t matter anymore.
“In the markets of Avalon,” Jane started, “a medieval trading hub that had overflowed its city walls and was a popular destination for hoppers, we met.”
She talked from her mouth, and all of her body stayed unmoving, hands clasped.
“I was younger back then, on my own and occasionally causing trouble, just little things.”
Walter coughed intentionally and looked off to some dark corner.
“One can buy and sell just about any worldly product in this city. Are you familiar with Middle Eastern civilizations?”
I shook my head. Of course they had to meet in a far away place, anywhere but familiar 22nd century Earth.
She started to describe the setting: animals roaming the streets of packed dirt, oxen and wagons, an overall dirty air with every single smell–mixed with dung–in the poorer sections.
“Cut to the chase,” Walter said. “He’ll pick it up as we go.” I gave a weak grin; compared to the “folding of a pocket universe” that happened when we first met, medieval seemed tame.
“Okay,” Jane sighed, and her brow relaxed a little. “I was in a rush through the busy streets. No internet technology there, perfect for hoppers to blend in and buy anything. Naturally, with all the traffic, I bumped into a merchant and spilled a whole cart of food.” Meanwhile, Walter made air quotations, shaking his head with a laugh.
Jane sighed and continued, “cabbage all over the ground, animals flocking over for the treat. I went to help-”
“You caused it,” Walter broke in. “Overturned that poor farmer’s livelihood to distract your pursuers, ’cause you stole-”
“I am telling the story.” Jane gave him a piercing stare. “Running too fast through too much people, accidents happen. Then this young man in a turban comes to help me. I saw his blue eyebrows, a certain indicator he hopped to this world.”
“Jane kept her face under wraps too, literally.”
“Your commentary is unnecessary. Look, Arc’s confused as it is. You have a question.”
The way she stated that, my question was almost forgotten. “What were you doing, I mean, in a rush for at Avalon?” I asked, hoping for a more personal explanation.
“What everyone else does: shopping,” she answered. ”You can get there easily since there’s lots of doors, or well maintained roads in a sense.”
“Do you mean physical doors or those ones that, um, multiverse stuff?” I asked, sidetracked with her.
“Well, yes and no. A more sophisticated explanation is due.” Jane stood and walked a ways to the front of the bar, then put her palm against a cloudy window.
“The box theory should make sense, Architect,” she directed at me. “Imagine a row of buildings that share walls with the next, but each closed off. No windows nor doors to the outside. Each box is self sustaining, a universe of itself. Avalon’s would be one of them.” She walked to the center of the room, skirting around some tables.
“Pretend we are in a box- Walter. Attention. There’s another world on the other side of this,” she walked to the nearest wall and knocked. “But there are no visible passageways. However, at the very base level of reality, where you find the stuff subatomic particles are made of, everything is under a common denominator. You find what we call the code, computer programming, like a giant simulation of the world but very much real.”
This I understood from my brief experience, one way or another.
“Like The Matrix, you pop-culture addicts,” Jane said.
“What!?” I said.
“What?” she said.
“Hoppers can manipulate the language of reality,” Jane continued, “to create a door where there is none, and so hop from box to box, universe to universe.” She pretended to stick a hand through the wall. “And now I’m in o-Earth. And now I’m in Avalon.”
I nodded, sidetracked fully, but this wall explanation just brought up more questions. I asked, “and what about this pocket you say I accidentally made and we are in?”
“Complicated,” Jane sighed. “Another time.”
Walter lifted his head up from his arm. “Explanation over. I rescued Jane from that situation, helping a fellow hopper out. Right?”
“You did help me, correct,” she replied flatly, settling back into her chair.
“We are among friends, sharing your private stash! When’s the last time you allowed me to even smell this wine? You don’t need to put your guard up, act as if Arc can’t know any secrets.” The blue haired man turned to her and wiggled his eyebrows. “This is why you have trouble getting to know people…”
As they argued, I found a ceiling light to stare at and ran its design through my head absentmindedly.
“Okay,” Jane clapped her hands once again. “Keep in mind this is only a story, a memory, and may not be a hundred percent true. Walter, continue from here and try not to badmouth too much.”
I filled their empty glasses as he made a show of getting ready. She thanked me and remained stoic.
“Five minutes before Jane’s “accident”, I was strolling the market, on another shopping trip for my family. It’s more of a small village,” he said to the side. “Then I hear chaos, and I have a theory: all the traffic jams and disturbances in Avalon are caused by hoppers.” He creeped up behind Jane, who was making an effort not to cringe.
“So I’m shoving her all too conspicuous face into some onions or something as the guards come around. Oh, hello kind officer!” He rested an elbow on Jane’s shiny head and played innocent. “Me an’ this lovely lady were takin’ a stroll and wha da ya know! A madwoman comes running by and spooked this poor cow! She went that way! Blah blah good Samaritan blah.” He settled the final blah with a pat on her shoulder.
Going back to normal, he put a hand to his heart. “I gave her an alibi. Know what she gave me? She gave me the slip.” He finally sat, but just on the edge of his seat.
“Down the streets we run again, and I notice she’s been hugging a satchel close. Somehow we reach the city walls without incident aside from a lot of civilians swearing at us. Then she jumps. Up. In a single spring my target’s shimmying up bare concrete, then a guard tower, planning to cross Avalon via rooftop.”
“Um…” I began, and this storyteller was friendly to interruptions. “Jane must’ve jumped very high?”
“You’ve never lived on Jupiter,” he deadpanned.
Walter emptied his glass in a quick toss and stood, playing little people with his hands. “Whoosh, she springs across a thatch roof and leaps onto a steeple.” He chased his left hand around chair tops and Jane’s unamused head and shoulders. “She had an arm around her bag, but I was carrying my sword, so I think we were even.”
No way could I imagine this clown with a sword. World hopping would probably drive me mad.
“No one’s looking up to see our wild goose chase. Bam! Bam!” He mimicked jumping onto the edge of his wine glass, then circling around. “Then she headed toward a broken and abandoned house. But she didn’t know that.”
Jane rolled her eyes at what was to come.
“Don’t jump!” Walter gasped, desperately reaching an outstretched arm to her sitting flatly in the chair. From my vantage, Jane’s forehead wrinkled as she just raised her nonexistent eyebrows. It did the trick.
“And stuff happened and we ended up on a terrace,” he said with less zest. “You were sweating buckets, and as we climbed down from another landing, you fell into my arms-”
“You were panting like a dog. I tripped.”
“Cm’on, it’s more fun,” he complained, “no harm in embellishing a little.”
Jane still took the same posture as before, back straight, hands clasped, but her face hinted at amusement.
“Apparently saving her butt meant we could like talk to each other now. I remember spelling out my full name and title: Walter of the 7Wind- oops, it’s 6Winds now. Dreamsworn, pilot-”
“Just some big family honorifics, don’t bother,” Jane whispered to me.
“And then she just says one syllable in return. You know. Plain J-A-N-E. And Jane the rogue knew just one person in the hopper community: her mentor. A pretty unique relationship, if you ask me. Taught just by one person who’s loosely Lightsworn, so no official portals. How she even got to Avalon was beyond me. But of course all that information cost me some embarrassing family secrets.”
Jane politely snickered behind her hand.
“Lightsworn?” I had said in the middle, but was overtalked. I would find out another time.
“Then we get to the satchel. Inside the leather bag was a book, a colour printed picture book with an enamel cover. Some hopper had hid it in the markets.”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to-” but he just nodded to my objection and went on.
“There’s only one reason to collect such a bizarre object: backdoor.”
I threw up my hands. “Explain please. Just putting it out there…” I said, shrinking back. Jane’s gaze softened.
She said, “in the code, the backbone of the world, there are natural bugs. Glitches. Sometimes to take advantage of them, a key is needed to activate the lock. Objects are made of code of course, and if you observe… too complex,” She sighed, and backtracked.
“Backdoor. Just imagine an orange unlocking your safe. The safe’s guarded by a chemical sensor, and the orange just happens to emit the same chemical: a coincidence. In code, it’s similar. My book…” She trailed off, blinking. I had a strange feeling about that.
Jane swished the last of her wine around in her mouth before swallowing. “Another thing about backdoors: if you’re good enough, you can use them to travel anywhere.”
“And if you’re insane enough- Ow.” Walter was visibly kicked under the table. “Six months! Six! Don’t-”
An unspoken agreement passed.
“There are the fast official portals, but also temporary ones, say, across a desert in a cave six months away from the great trading hub. And that’s where I came from, a rouge, as Walter puts it.”
“But it only leads to la-la land where you’ll wander for another couple of wasted years. You’re official.”
“Yes, but I also need to conserve time. Meetings take up too much, on top of other duties. Still,” she turned me with a faint smile, “I do miss adventure.”
I chuckled nervously at that concept.
“About the book,” I said, holding Jane’s wine bottle upside down for the last drop.
“You want to know what was inside?” she said as she took the empty bottle with a critical eye.
“It’s important, isn’t it?”
“Fair. Inside that picture book was a child’s story, but I forgot.”
Walter pondered, and said, “on the rooftops, we read it. Don’t remember the specifics now. But there was a thing where the book had a guy reading a picture book inside the book. A library or something.”
“Yes,” Jane declared. “I remember distinctively; there was a drawing of kids reading with bookshelves stacked many times higher than them. And now… we are telling the story’s story.”
Walter chuckled, Jane drummed her fingers nervously and said, “that was it. A story inside a story, what we needed for the backdoor. How poetic the code can be at times; I never thought it’d come up now, as we talk, telling it like this, seated so close.”
I leaned forward and said, “I suppose we’re all… stories. After all.”
Jane nodded solemnly. “Arc, If you are- if you will be telling our story…”
We sat and thought of this.
I noticed the two holding hands later; Walter’s bigger palm, worn and maybe scarred, over Jane’s. A powerful weathered beige, like time couldn’t fade it away. Jane’s lankier pale hand was relaxed, but I had a feeling she could crush his fingers anytime.
“To wrap up loose ends quickly,” Jane said, “I followed Walter to the official portals, and we eventually… hopped to a place called The Water. My mentor’s funeral.”
“I’m sorry,” I automatically said.
“Why, don’t be. She was there too. At her own funeral, quite content and ready.”
I watched her closely, but she just kept talking.
“Back then, The Water was located deep in an uncharted box. It was a difficult exercise to set up the doors there.”
“Your mentor,” I said quietly, “why do it? There are more places to, uh, explore. Adventure, as you said.”
“And there are many buildings to build, I’m sure, if you have all the time in the world,” Jane responded in a breath. That hit me into guilty silence. I joined Walter in looking down, perhaps a sign of respect for her to finish.
“She was very, very old. Older than us three put together. And very, very ready. Her sourcecode body was breaking down, I was growing up, it was time.
Now, The Water, as some put it, is a phenomenal glitch. Anyone who has the keys for this backdoor can dive into the pool, or off the cliff, or into the deep, and you can see them go in. Ripples in the code, all hoppers can feel it as easily as their born senses. Then all traces disappear. They’re deleted, never heard from again. However, some call it The Womb.” Her voice was steady as she squeezed Walter’s hand.
He raised his eyes and said, “my family believes in not a watery grave, but life. Arc, if you can imagine this metaphor of an explanation: When babies are in there, the womb, they’re telepathic. They can communicate with each other, attempt synchronized swimming! Something like that.”
I was glad for the comedic break.
Walter continued in a more serious tone. “When they’re born, they lose that ability, cut off. So if you’re floating in the womb and your friend of 8 months just got born, won’t you, won’t we call it… Death?”
He left me hanging and stood up to stretch. The wine was all cleared, except for my glass.
“Do you miss her?” I asked Jane.
“Do you miss your old life?” she replied, perfectly still.
I brought their two glasses to the sink with wet wipes. The water system would be completed soon, one step towards the grand opening and my integration to their world.
“I started on the path of a full time Dreamsworn after,” Jane said as she dressed in what looked to be heavy and furry clothing. “No more playing around, dedicated myself to the cause full time.”
“You’ve met the capable people Jane leads,” Walter huffed as he pulled on some awkward pants. “Hope we answered your question, so drink your wine. And these are parkas because the heating broke.”
I was learning not to question where they were going or the explaining would never end. My glass of burnt umber liquid sat ready to be consumed in a mouthful, and I walked out behind the kitchen counter.
Hoppers would experience time differently, I thought, always looking ahead and moving forward.
I raised the glass and was hit by a heavy scent of not alcohol but sweetness. It flowed like honey into my mouth, a little at a time, full of intense flavours I couldn’t distinguish. Mushrooms, not really sure.
“Wow.” I raised the empty glass in salutation. “I’m not a wine connoisseur, but it tastes… sweet. There’s just a lot I can’t describe.”
Through a hood and mask, Jane’s eyes slit through. “I see. We’ll be back soon, three o-hours, to finish stabilizing.”
Mouth still lingering with the taste of old wine, I stood amidst the wooden decor and prepared to see them off.
“Wait,” I half yelled, remembering at the last moment. “How do I look?”
The question might’ve been too broad, as Walter shrugged and mentioned something vague and nice.
Jane took a step forward and said, “like the wise old bartender at the end of the world.”
I laughed and waved goodbye. Some sort of door was set up for instantaneous travel back to their space station, I think. I did sense a ripple they left behind as my world became empty.
Jane’s team didn’t have enough time to explain the inner workings, but they were fixing the code around Arkin to be more permanent. My appearance could be changed, and I was still debating whether to.
That did not matter now. I would allow myself a brief break to digest that meeting, and then leap head-first into work and reading. Bars do not run themselves, especially one that is planning to cater to the center of the multiverse.