The device itself was a hollow sphere, which when pressed unfolded into a series of eye-shaped segments. Over the multiple surfaces, fractal patterns unfolded, filling the segments before starting again. He was tempted to use it straight away, but of course, he had to reach first, reach through the data spilling into his head about it.
> Device, pictured centre [corr.: centre-right -> centre].
He decided to keep his head completely still – possible with a paralysis prompt, forcing fields around his skull to lock it into place – and parse the data onwards.
> Device originates from the Dharan Republic, Nineteenth Iteration. Object is at least one million years old and shows some signs of light degradation due to the inadequacies of the technology of the period (preservation techniques were applied during the Twenty-Seventh Iteration, which has limited outer structure decline [see graph attached]). Internal scans suggest that the device is functionally at 99.99% condition; test runs suggest persistent lag of 1.103 zeptoseconds (one standard deviation above norm for objects of this type). Object is known to be a Worldmaker, batch designate NGC4038 and 9, Hand 19/322, Finger 3.
A Worldmaker – he had heard about such things. Their production had been banned long before his time, in mere years after their initial invention, because such things could prompt something far worse than death; overuse of the device could result in something beyond mere delusion about which reality was real – those truly caught in Worldmaker’s grip could forget how many realities there were supposed to be, or how many they were meant to live in. Some insisted that the true reality was one without a Worldmaker, and hence left it behind at the first possibility, effectively locking themselves in.
The only reason anyone knew this, of course, was because some of those people were finally extricated, something that could take even Dharan technology months to achieve, and that was no doubt, even now, beyond Shango or Qareen capabilities. Dragging people out, though, was often not a rescue but a salvage mission, and those were sane often had to be stripped of their enhancements, rendering them mortal and stunted, mere organics who were destined to fizzle out to an ignominious end. In most cases, it was kindest to strap the salvaged individual down, remove all the enhancements, and then put them to eternal rest.
The real trouble was, he thought, was in possessing a device and not using it. But to throw it away was to be wasteful. Still, having found the device, he had also acquired what he reckoned was the solution. No-one had tried it – but of course, someone had to.
Calling up the data from somewhere inside his mind, he zoomed in his vision towards the Worldmaker, and found its screen to be twitching with activity. “Loading Red Skein, EverTaut”, it claimed, and within a second had done so.
He wasn’t going to make the mistakes of prior generations. At the very minimum, he was going to make wholly different ones.
Now, he thought, how does this thing open?
The first step was easy enough – an immediate interface appeared and he took femtoseconds to hesitantly open it. Doing so created a large button within his cognitive interface, which took a similar amount of time to press, but not before he had seized the Red Skein interface, a long, well, red skein, in his hand, and observed that it was as solid as an I-beam. Within the nanosecond, it was possible to enter, as the Skein had swung towards the first reflective object it could find, its end scrabbling almost too fast for the Dharan eye to see across the wall.
He moved along that red string to the mirror on the wall, a floor-to-ceiling affair, untinted, and lacking his reflection. He stepped through, and he was in.
The room in front of him was almost entirely like the one he had recently left, albeit with two crucial differences; one was that the room’s arrangement was a complete mirror image of its predecessor, and the other was the completely black view outside, alongside the dark view just visible around the door, which naturally meant that the room’s main light was on.
He paused. Looking back, he could still see that Worldmaker on the bed in the world he had literally left, and ahead of him, the same device appear. He picked it up, folded it back into a sphere, and decided to let go of the string, which rushed to the crack in the door as he headed to it.
He envisioned a corridor – nothing too elaborate, but something to walk on – signalled to the sphere in his hand, and opened the door. The corridor was there, although he was surprised to see how much flaking paintwork he had envisioned. Clearly his mind was fuzzy; he sharpened it, but all this did was boost the resolution of that flaking paint.
He continued down the stairs he produced just in time, scheduling one part of his mind to run ahead of the other, which in turn had to run slightly behind the Worldmaker’s implementation, as it corralled mass and energy from behind him and threw it out ahead.
He flung open the door, looked out across a dark concrete piazza – no sun, it would be a waste – he hoped to find a mirror soon, before realised that he simply had to put one up. Indeed, he had the control on this second occasion, the freedom to experiment a little, and he decided he would take it. Turning away, he envisioned two mirrors on the piazza, facing each other, stood exactly upright. He turned back, entered one of them and arrived, in effect, on the second level down.
Now here – here with seemingly endless tunnels, with a darkness that was always pushing away from him – here was interesting.
It needed people, though.
How long had it been, now? He guessed he had been gone around five days. The place he woke up in bore all the hallmarks of the topmost level, the “true” reality, but of course, but having the room filtered with a very light green tint did enough to make him know he wasn’t where he “should” be. The Red Skein, which looped around through the mirror and pointed to the door, might perhaps have been another clue, but he needed the certainty. There was no point in taking risks down here, and to go back would probably take days in any case.
At first, the mere act of adjusting the mirrors had been fun, but there were limits to the tinting, stretching and other distortions that could be applied, resulting in worlds that were geometrically interesting but not fundamentally different. What he needed, he had realised before his few hours of powering down, was to go much, much further. That meant that what appeared in front of the mirror had to be physically impossible in the current world, so he could step through into something literally beyond his current capabilities. As far as he was aware, no-one had done this. Truly, he was a pioneer, so long as he could get back again.
Nine days in. He was sure it had been nine days. Wandering through darkened universes, looking up into skies where suns blazed black, and pivoting about a point in time whilst ascending Penrose stairs could make these things relatively ambiguous. But he had survived nine days, and not gone insane, and not lost track of where he was.
It had taken him much of the afternoon, however, to figure out the problem. People had given odd glances past his shoulder in conversation, and an abstract feeling flitted memos between the various departments of his brain. But of course, even with his eyes, it was possible to look without seeing.
Once he was seeing, though, he was seeing something obvious – the Red Skein was on the ground, tracing a limp, meandering path out of the door and back to – well, quite possibly not from where he had come.
Charging out of the party he had set up, he ran outside, and through the rain he could see that skein snake off into the distance. He had explored this particular level in quite some depth, and the journey back almost certain ran for several kilometres. The journey through the other levels, too, was probably one that ran for hours of journey time.
He knew he had to go back. He moved slowly towards heading back, tracing his steps along the string like it was some sort of game, a must-win game at that, but also a game whose very conditions suggested that he would lose. Somewhere out there, on the upper levels, the backward levels – whatever they were – something had failed.
Through numerous versions of the laws of physics, through dozens of warped geometries, intermingled with the occasional world – like this one – that retained some semblance of normality. Somewhere in there, the string was cut or stretched. And depending on which of those options it was, there was quite possibly no way out.