Chapter 1: Tetrahedron: All those things we used to do
She ignores the shout at first, concentrating on realigning the actuators on the hydroponic panel. This one has always been stubborn; she remembers her own grandmother cursing it, then making the sign of the pyramid four times to ward away any evil consequence. With a grunt of frustration, she makes the complex glyph that switches it to manual control, and coaxes it back into the correct position with her gestures.
She'll be back again tomorrow, to do exactly the same thing. And the day after that. The panel needs a whole new set of servo motors. She put in the request months ago, but she knows it has been assigned the lowest priority.
Tala is out of breath, hands on her knees. Behind her is a crowd of a dozen or so of her classmates.
"They want to hear the story again, don't they?"
"Yes please, katolanon," one of the boys says. He's taller than Tala but probably younger, his beanpole shape showing the classic signs of having had his early development in one of the low gravity zones.
"I am no wise woman," she says. A good thing, too: the half-remembered rituals of her own childhood are part of their basic curriculum now. She remains convinced that the democratisation of knowledge makes their community more secure not less, though the process was not without its pains.
Their faces fall, and she reminds herself there is always a place for a storyteller. "But I do know some of the stories," she adds. "I know because they happened to me." She grins broadly, and sees that without her having bid them to, they are sat around her in a semi-circle, cross-legged and faces turned to her, rapt with attention.
"Is it true that you met him?" a girl pipes up. The look on Tala's face tells her everything she needs to know about their relationship.
"When I was your age--" She waves her hand equivocally in front of her "--or perhaps a little younger, he walked among us."
"So he was real?" a boy she hasn't seen before says, this simple confirmation clearly enough to make him credit every story of The Hermit he's ever heard with absolute truth.
She settles back in his chair. "There was a man who walked among us," she says, "and he certainly had some extraordinary abilities. But whether that means everything people say about him is true--" She shrugs "--I don't know. As I said, I was only young at the time. He certainly seemed magical to me."
* * *
She tells the story of the Hermit. Or at least, her version of it. Her telling is worn smooth now, like a pebble tossed and turned by the waves of Distant Earth. And yet, each telling is different, because she's never yet had an audience who could resist butting in with their questions.
She tells of how a man walked among them, but somehow was not of them. All who met him could tell that there was something different about him. Some thought that he was a prophet, because he could tell people their futures. But some people thought that he was more than a prophet, because in the telling he could make those futures true.
They ask their questions: did he ever tell her future? Well, of course, he told her that she would live to a ripe old age and be pestered by young children who wanted to hear about him. Does she believe that their world is the best possible world, because of the Hermit's choices? That's what many people say, she equivocates, not wanting to cause dissension when they get home to their parents and their differing views on the matter. What does she think of the fact that no one can find him on the original crew manifests? That's a relatively new one, the digital archaeology that reconstructed them only recently having been released into the public domain. But that reconstruction in itself throws enough doubt into the mix to mean that it doesn't prove anything one way or the other. Some claim it as evidence that he never existed, and she knows that isn't true. Some take it as proof for some of the wilder claims about his origins, and while she doubts those too, she knows that's not what her audience wants to her.
And then, the most inevitable question of all: did she ever see his magic? That one she can answer with complete honesty. She tells them of the one time she sought him out, when he'd been wandering the outer reaches of the habitable zone around the village for a decade or more. She obfuscates the reasons: the idea that she ever thought that an ambiguously magical Hermit could help with the troubles of a teenage heart seems ridiculous to her now, at the ripe old age of one hundred and thirty.
But then she gets to the good part, and gestures behind her back at the hydroponic panels so that they rotate just so and catch the distant light of the oh-so-slowly setting Sun. The actuators on that one panel will wear down that bit faster, but it's worth it to see the expressions on their faces as she appears for a moment the way she found him, the reflections of the reflection of her seeming to multiply her many times. A trick, of course, but it's a good one.
* * *
"What do you think, lola?" Tala asks, once they've all gone. "I mean, what do you really think?"
"I think you can do a lot with a few reflective surfaces and some misdirecting patter," she says. She doesn't add that she never saw any reflective surfaces when she'd been to see him
Tala puts her hands on her hips. "Lola ..."
"All right, kid," she says, "I'll tell you what I really think." She beckons Tala closer, and leans down towards her, lowering her voice to a confidential whisper. "I think that if what they tell us about our world -- or maybe I should say, our worlds -- is right, then there's no difference between being able to change the reality you're in, and being able to change which reality you're in." Tala frowned in confusion. "If every possibility happens, then what's to say that you're not choosing to live in one that you prefer?"
"So you don't think our world is the best of all possible worlds?"
She rocks back on the chair. "I think it might have been the best of all possible worlds for the Hermit. For a while, at least. But this place--" she gestured around, encompassing not just the farm or the village but the entire planet "--this place, with its tiny number of colonists. It's simple. There are far fewer of us here than there are on Distant Earth. Fewer different futures to see into, to worry about."
"So why did he disappear?"
She shrugs again. "Who's to say that he did? Maybe he just went further and further into the wastes. Maybe he really was the Quantum Immortal, and had lived as long as some people say, and he was just looking for somewhere simple to retire to. Or maybe he was resting, gathering his strength before some great undertaking." She grinned. "Maybe all the possibilities are true at once."
Tala's expression made it clear that she wasn't going to be satisfied with that. "But what do you think?"
"What do I think?"
"Yes! Just tell me, lola."
"I think seeing every reality that ever has been, is, or could be would be both a wonderful gift and a terrible burden. I think it would be amazing if you could still talk to people at all, let alone inspire them the way the Hermit did. And I think ... I think even if you were capable of such compassion, of being able to see the tiny details of the smallest part of the picture--" And for a moment, she feels again both that wound of betrayed first love, and the way he soothed it with his words "--I think even then, especially then, especially if you cared that much, you'd have so much more to do, out there in the many worlds."
Chapter 2: Hexahedron: At the Borderline
She walks through the garden. As she passes, the branches dip as if in a breeze, shedding their heavy loads of wind-borne fruit, which once free reveal that they are lighter than air, floating upwards. Flowers open their petals, even in the twilight.
She walks through the garden, and she is the garden. And yet the form of this avatar is unfamiliar, patterned after no species that crawls or slithers or flies among her bounty.
Or has her consciousness spent far longer subsumed in the slow patterns of growth and decay, sleeping in the dappled sunlight, this time?
No. She pauses to stretch out her senses, her upper limbs spreading involuntarily outwards as she does so. After a moment, she can tell that there are no other creatures patterned this way in the garden. How, then, has such a specific form arisen? She did not will it.
She is, to put it mildly, unused to things happening that she did not will.
For a moment she experiences a wholly new sensation -- fear. That this other will, wherever it comes from, is somehow a threat to the garden, to her. Or worse still, that the garden is already somehow corrupted, this new form a symptom of the disease.
But the moment passes, and she relaxes. What can threaten a garden that spans a globe? If there is another out there somewhere, she will welcome it.
She becomes aware, by its sudden absence, of a sensation that has always been with her -- loneliness.
She looks up into the sky at the bright point that is the planet's nearest neighbour, half as far again from the Sun. She has sensed the faintest stirrings of life there before now, when buried deep in the growth dream. Has something more complex arisen there?
She allows her consciousness to stretch outwards and outwards, becoming both more complex and more diffuse. The avatar stands, an empty shell, until the process is complete.
As she comes back to herself, she has the answer: No. And yet ... something about the new presence has something in common with the tiny microbial stirrings she does sense from the watery planet.
The presence speaks to her, and even though these senses are unfamiliar, she knows that she is not truly hearing.
The presence whispers to her of a universe beyond her imaginings. Of creatures like the body she now inhabits spreading scattering themselves across the stars like seeds.
But she learns that all of this will happen, from her point of view, in the impossibly far future. She imagines that these creatures will visit here first, their nearest neighbour, and considers the idea of sliding deep into the growth dream to meet them as they wander through her glades.
It is then that she learns from the presence that this is impossible, that by then the garden will have long since burned away to nothing, the sunlight that sustains it ultimately turning traitor, as the temperature rises and rises. One day, this paradise would become an inferno.
She yearns now to meet this other, this descendant of the water world, to understand it better. To have come so close to the possibility of contact and have the prospect snatched away is more than she can bear. She was never aware of the idea of a border before, there was no discontinuity between one part of herself and another. But now there is an implacable border in time, that this other presence can partially bridge.
The presence is silent within her mind for a long time. She calls out to it with her new voice, knowing the foolishness of it.
But then the presence returns, and tells her that there is indeed a way.
As she walks on, she sees something in front of her that she has never seen before. To the senses of the garden, the object does not seem to exist. And even to the brain that comes with this form, it is jarringly out of place with everything else here: all straight lines and sharp angles.
She walks forward, arm outstretched. The presence is within, calling to her.
And she can already sense that there are others, too, connected via this construct. And that they can sense her. She will not be alone, ever again.
The garden will endure here for millions of years to come before it finally subsumes to the consuming fire, but she will be its greatest legacy, lasting into eternity, beyond even the confines of this reality.
As she steps forward into the unknown, the seeds float ever upwards around her.
Chapter 3: Octahedron: Cross the Bridge
It had been some minutes now since he last responded to the attempts by the crew to contact him. He imagined that they were becoming quite frantic. He was certain that they regretted indulging his sudden request to see the culmination of his life's work first hand.
And they were surely baffled that he was not even facing in the direction of the Goliath; it floated behind him, auxiliary craft flitting around it. It was indeed the culmination of his life's work: a colossal device that should, at least in theory, be capable of generating traversable Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen bridges. Or, more correctly, selecting them from within the quantum foam of spacetime, where they fleetingly popped in and out of existence on the Planck scale, freezing them and expanding them to macroscopic size.
"Professor Gomez, is everything all right? All systems are in readiness."
He had had two great insights.
Firstly, that the process might be possible at all, as long as the local gravitational potential was flat enough. Few enough places in the Solar System fitted the bill, and the Mercurian L1 point had been chosen as the best way to meet the absurd power consumption requirements -- Goliath's huge area of solar panels, unfolded behind it like the petals of a flower, had been soaking up the Sun's energy for weeks now, storing it in the enormous capacitor bank that made up its entire middle section.
The second insight had been geometric: that an octahedral lattice of exotic matter could stabilise the bridge. He imagined a day when every home was equipped with a glowing octahedron, allowing people to visit other continents -- even other worlds -- as easily as their next door neighbours. The ones projecting from either end of the Goliath were rather larger, though -- big enough, in fact, for one of its shuttles to enter, and, if all went well, reappear instantaneously from the other. The protocols, however, only had that as part of Phase Three trials, if all went well in Phase One (passive observation of the interface) and Phase Two (exploration by unmanned probes).
But the Goliath held no interest for him now. The glare of the Sun ahead of him was nearly blinding, but he was focused on something far closer at hand.
"Professor Gomez, it would help us greatly if you could please explain why you have not yet returned to the ship."
He would not explain, could not explain. Not now, not after so long keeping the secret -- all through his early life, all through his glittering career.
He knew, with absolute certainty, that there was more to the world than the equations that described it or the technologies that defined it. The Goliath would work, he was certain -- it would be his legacy, interstellar travel his gift to humanity -- but its conductive plasma manifolds and mass restabilisers were not the only way to achieve the effect.
A new voice over his headset. "Professor Gomez, this is Director Alessandro. You have been given considerable lassitude as a result of the great esteem in which you are held by all of us, but I regret to inform you that the experiment must now proceed. Please respond immediately."
He shut off the comm.
The voices in the headset had no hope of competing with the ones which had been in his mind since childhood, urging him onwards, reassuring him when he needed it most, calling to him to join them. And now, at last, he could.
There was a point -- tiny, but it existed -- at which his own gravitational field strength balanced perfectly that of the Sun. At this sort of distance, it should be just a few centimetres in front of his face.
With senses he could not explain, he reached into the realm of the infinitesimally small and plucked out one end of the bridge. But unlike the one the Goliath would create, the other end lay far away, quite possibly in another quantum reality entirely. It might even exist beyond all realities.
With an act of pure will he forced the bridge to expand to an appropriate size. He half-expected it to fail, at this last moment, half-expected everything to turn out to have been a delusion. There was no magic in the world, after all, everything he had experienced -- everything he had believed in -- only some distorted reflection of his physical insights.
But there it was: the bipyramid, spinning slowly in front of him. The interface was perfectly reflective. He smiled to himself: of course it was. And yet he had never realised that simply from working with the equations.
He wondered for a moment what those on board the Goliath would make of the telemetry from his suit. Would they realise what had happened, understand how he had disappeared? He knew, though, that they would never be able to understand why.
With a small burst from his manoeuvring thrusters, he embraced his destiny.
Chapter 4: Dodecahedron: Across the Universe
He carried on alone across the Europan wastes.
He could no longer be certain how long it had been since the rest of the expedition had turned back for base camp, decrying his life's quest as a fool's errand. His body's natural rhythms told him one thing, but the sky never changed, Jupiter and the Ionian ring -- that great testament to the might of the twinned powers of oklite and human hubris -- hanging permanently above him.
All his arguments, bribes and cajolery had been for nothing. They would rather wait out the weeks before the transfer window, huddled by the warmth of the Tewodros's atomic pile, than share in his glory. Even the English journalist who had sworn that he wanted to chronicle every step of his journey of discovery had returned with them.
They had let him keep the clockwork pachyderm, which still carried him indefatigably onwards, the Antecedent device and as many of the supplies as the pachyderm could carry. They had made it clear that if he had not returned before the optimum launch time, they would indeed leave without him.
But of course he would be returning. He could picture their faces now as he returned astride the pachyderm, carrying the treasures of the aeons, the way that they would fall over themselves to declare that they had always believed he could do it. He could even picture himself in the main lecture hall of the Interplanetary Society in Lagos -- looking out on an audience of his erstwhile critics, thronged in front of the great window that opened onto the vista of the slowly tapering column of the Extraterrestrial Funicular rising from beyond the horizon -- explaining how he had made the greatest discovery of human history alone.
The device in his pocket quivered in the way that had become familiar, and yet remained profoundly alien. He removed it and studied the eerie green glow of the phosphorescent display, its radial sweep both like and unlike the second hand of a watch.
The science of the Antecedents -- and even here, as profoundly alone as it was possible for anyone to be, he remained convinced in his core that it was science, not magic, whatever the Fabulists might claim -- remained opaque in many ways. But the attraction between one piece of their technology and another, the way in which they seemed to call to one another, each to each, had been demonstrated very soon after the first discoveries on Earth, decades ago now.
He must be close. He dismounted and proceeded on foot, trusting to the device.
Soon, he came upon a small depression in the surface. Dropping to his knees, he scrabbled at the dust. Sure enough, there was one of the Antecedent locking mechanisms that had become so familiar over the years, its Stone Age appearance belying the fact that it had survived for thousands of times longer than the entire history of humanity.
He operated it. Despite all his experience, he had never done this himself on a real mechanism. He had practised on simulated contraptions, of course, but in the expeditions of his youth had always had to yield to those with greater seniority for the honour.
This was not like the simulations at all. There was none of the hissing and clanking of hidden steam engines. Instead, it was impossible to tell whether something was rising from the ground in front of him, or he was being taken below into some kind of chamber. His entire vision filled with searing bright reflections. He could not tell exactly how large the object was, nor how many glittering facets it had -- at least a dozen, he estimated, maybe more.
But above all, he knew that it was calling to him, a call that was impossible to resist. It was the call he had felt all his life. He could see now that it was not simply the mysteries of the Antecedents that had brought him here. He had always been meant to be in this place, at this moment.
It looked as though the crew would be returning without him, after all.
Chapter 5: Icosahedron: Looking Out
He opened his eyes from his long trance.
The mirrored pyramid floated before him.
He had done it. Transmuted the villagers' belief in his abilities into reality.
They thought him capable of adjusting reality, and so -- thanks to the strange gift he had been born with, that what others believed of him became true -- he had become so, but he had come to realise that that was too small a goal. It was not enough to be there for one reality, to shepherd its denizens through the vicissitudes of life. Not when there were so many realities to take care of.
He picked up his staff and walked forward. He had spent half his life stepping across the wastes for kilometre after kilometre, and he took the same purposeful strides now in these final moments as he always had--
* * *
--and entered a new existence.
He had fashioned for himself a nexus, connecting all the disparate realities together. He was the nexus's animating consciousness, its controller, but he was the nexus on a fundamental level.
With his new senses, the reality that he had left was like the tiniest knot in an enormous tapestry that stretched in front of him forever. And yet it was not insignificant: everyone who had ever lived and loved and died and suffered there counted just as much as any other. He felt his sense of purpose renew itself still further: he would guard all the realities.
As he studied that abstract tapestry, however, he realised that his work was not yet complete. The nexus could evolve, and therefore it must evolve. Once in its final form, he could tell, it would be that much more powerful, more able to accomplish his goal.
But he could not do it alone. New consciousnesses would be required. But where, across universes, and all of time and space within each, to find them?
He realised that his attention had become focused on one particular reality, drawn to a consciousness that was naturally like the one he had ascended into: both particular and diffuse at the same time.
She walks through the garden, and she is the garden.
Communication was difficult, but achievable. He brought her into the nexus, and in the very act of doing so, it progressed into a new form, adding more sides, further windows onto the multiverse.
Together, they searched for another to join them, perhaps one who would be able to help them work out how best to harness their powers. With millions of years on him in experience of using such senses, she quickly located a scientific genius on the cusp of a breakthrough.
The second insight had been geometric.
Almost casually, they rewrote his timeline, weaving themselves into it.
And then he was joining them. Despite being discorporeal, they embraced like old friends.
But there was still something missing. They could look out upon the realities, sense everything about them, comprehend them at the deepest level -- but that was not the same as experiencing them.
They found the fourth member of their quadrumvirate in a reality where humanity's development was greatly affected by the discovery of the existence of ancient aliens. Someone with lived experience of exploration and discovery.
This was not like the simulations at all.
This time things were simple: they simply had to insert the nexus interface into one of the ancient tombs at the point in his timeline when he discovered it.
They could feel that apotheosis was approaching: the interface was now more than merely a mirror, emitting more light than fell on it, becoming its own source of light.
With one final transformation, now that their quadrumvirate was complete, the nexus adopted its final form: the icosahedron.
* * *
A moment of pause.
All reality lay before them.
There was so much of it, so much to do, if the nexus's original purpose was to be fulfilled.
But there was no way to act only from here inside the nexus; that had been the insight that had been missing until they had found the final member. They would have to go out into the universes themselves, fixing things the hard way, just as the first of them had in the time before this existence.
Now, though, they could go everywhere, simultaneously. They could become what each reality needed of them, inserting themselves into the timelines again and again and again.
The nexus shattered apart into an infinity of glowing stars, carrying them to their destinations.