I’m very pleased to welcome globetrotting flyer-in-the-face-of-convention Lavie Tidhar back to the digital pages of Futurismic, and once again it’s with a story that stretches – or at least seems to stretch – our guidelines to breaking point, upsetting a few apple-carts full of sacred cows along the way. “In Pacmandu” is something a little out of the ordinary, even for us… and perhaps even (dare I say it?) for Lavie himself.
Are you ready? Then begin!
by Lavie Tidhar
- GoA universe, Sigma Quadrant, Berezhinsky Planetoid, sys-ops command module
It has been two weeks since the disappearance of the Wu expedition.
We are gathered at the sys-ops command module of the Berezhinsky Planetoid, Sigma Quadrant of the Guilds of Ashkelon universe. The light is soft. Music plays unobtrusively in the background. Outside the windows it is snowing lines of code.
Present in the command module: myself, CodeDolphin, Sergei and Hong.
Our task –
‘Find out the fuck happened.’
The Wu expedition: led by Commander Wu, High Admiral of the Nestled Fleet of the Guilds universe, battle-hardened survivor of a thousand previous engagements. Accompanied by: Black Rose, Gideon Battle-Axe, Harrison Code-Breaker, Jeremiah Smash-It. The best of the best: a cross-universe team of code-surfers, reality-tweakers, fighters, explorers. Fearless motherfuckers, the lot.
The sole survivor: Battle-Axe, demented beyond recall. What’s left of the expedition: four flat-lined bodies, cooling rapidly. Cause: unknown.
Supposition: Battle-Axe – the only Mars-based player on the team – survived due to time-lag. The others were fried right there and then.
- Transcript: interview with Jonathan Stapledon, AKA Gideon Battle-Axe, Level 5 Survivalist (Survivalist: The Middle Ages universe).
Q: Can you tell us what you saw?
Q: Try and relax. What do you remember? What happened?
Q: What was that?
A: Mouths. Beings made of mouths. They came for us… they took Black Rose. Mouths… the monkeys did it. Had to escape the monkeys. Ball of white light, moving. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to –
— Interview terminated at this point —
The command module: the Berezhinsky Planetoid (named after discoverer, Peter Berezhinsky, Stormare Guild (Independents)), last known location of Wu Expedition.
Their objective: singularity on planetoid surface, first detected two hundred years ago. Number of unsuccessful penetration attempts: too many to list. The singularity (one of over 300 known in the GoA universe) appears as a smooth black three-dimensional sphere.
Our objective: to follow Wu.
‘This is no longer a matter for in-universe policing,’ Commissar Gordon says. We sit around the table, listening to him. We’re avatar-ed up, CodeDolphin in the blue retro-manga dolphin shape, three-dimensional graffiti floating in space; Hong in universe-one, basic human; Sergei in a three-piece suit minus a body inside. Like Hong, I’m in true-form representation. Commissar Gordon says, ‘Four people are dead back in universe-1. A fifth needs constant medication… this is now a universe-1 police matter.’
‘I would like to officially protest the interference.’ The new voice belongs to an angel, a shining incorporeal being descending down from the ceiling – a PM from the system-God itself.
Gordon says, ‘Noted, and overruled.’
I say, ‘Do we know what they were looking for?’
The system-God’s avatar says, ‘Something they shouldn’t have. Something that doesn’t exist.’
But of course, we all already know.
- GoA universe, Sigma Quadrant, Berezhinsky Planetoid – surface
Four of us, to follow Wu’s five. The planetoid’s surface spreads out before us, a dark and featureless plane. Discovered by the long-gone Stormare Guild, a group of independents swallowed up over a hundred years ago by one of the bigger guilds. Nothing of value discovered – no tokens, ancient artefacts, bonus points, doomsday devices or other things of interest – beside the singularity, of course. The guild charged explorers for access rights. For two hundred years the anomaly withstood scrutiny.
We are quiet when we leave the command module. Now, under the two distant moons in the night sky, we begin to move, talking in low voices. Conversation’s encrypted. No one trusts a God.
CodeDolphin: ‘Word is Black Rose had a new piece of code.’
Sergei: ‘What sort?’
‘A disruptor-field generator.’
‘That’s impossible. And would be illegal if it were.’
They argue. I stay quiet – thinking. You hear rumours… system ghosts, super-admins, guys with impossible cheat codes – gremlins, goblins, wizards. Never more than a rumour. Still – Wu had considerable power within the GoA, and in-universe money’s as good as first world’s. Could they have cracked the singularity?
- GoA universe, Sigma Quadrant, Berezhinsky Planetoid – approaching singularity
It comes on you suddenly, a black mass growing in the distance. There is no sound. Visuals are reduced, the singularity is end-of-palette black, the surface around it shining faintly in startling monochrome. Back in first world the couch feeds me, empties me, cleans me, exercises me – fail-safes built in to ensure nothing bad ever happens – only something did. I think of Wu and the others, and wonder how long it’s been before they were discovered. I think of Stapledon’s interview then try not to. We do not know what to expect. We are the opposite of Wu’s crew – analysts, not hackers, visitors after-the-fact, not bold explorers. We fan out when we reach the singularity. Wordlessly, we begin to run a Mercator spell.
Singularities. To understand them you have to understand the universe itself, and of course, you can’t, not really. You think you do, we all think we do, or we wouldn’t be here, living here, they way humanity had done for hundreds of years – exploring the worlds and the spaces in between. Trading, fighting, making love… each of us comes from a different universe. We are not native to the GoA, and it feels suddenly like a hostile environment. We are not wanted here. I surreptitiously turn my head, scanning – but what do I expect to see? The system-God does not need avatars to follow us. It sees. It sees more than we do.
And yet it pleads ignorance of the death of four people.
The Mercator routines run like children across the perimeter of the singularity, and our silent chants rise in the air. Footsteps in the planetoid’s dust… we are tracking, trying to find traces of Wu’s own magic in this place.
What did they do? How had they – ?
‘Sys-boss,’ Hong says. ‘I found something.’
He’s in basic human. I watch him, a tiny figure against the singularity. He puts his palm against the black surface. ‘There are traces of –‘
There is a shudder in the air. There is a – a split. I say, ‘What the –‘ but before I can finish Hong has disappeared.
- HawkinsHead, Chair, cross-universe regulatory body, in interview:
What is a singularity? You may as well ask, what is a universe? How are they formed? What are they made of? Life is a combination of chance and order. Human or digital, the random element provides evolution. Laws and numbers govern every universe, even universe-1. But mutations, Fortean factors and singularities make it more than an equation, more than a set of fundamental constants. They provide… the element of life.
‘Hong? Hong!’ the black sphere shudders, begins to split open. White light pours out, a storm of code, the underlying structure of the ur-universe itself. I scream but there is no more sound. Hong had found the pressure point Wu’s team had created, and by finding he activated it. I watch, helpless, as we are sucked into the light, avatars melting, consciousness fleeing, thinking, It shouldn’t happen this way.
‘Where are we?’ Sergei says.
We’re standing on a battle-field. The dead are everywhere. Flies circle the corpses. The stench of blood makes me gag. Soldiers walk between the corpses, bloodied swords raised – checking for survivors.
CodeDolphin: ‘Survivalist: The Middle Ages.’
Sergei: ‘I hate this fucking universe.’
I shake my head. ‘Hong?’
He merely shakes his head. CodeDolphin’s dolphin avatar is gone, replaced with a human female form, but it is insubstantial. Hong and I are still in basic human, but we, also, seem less well-defined than the soldiers or the corpses or the flies. Sergei’s black empty suit fills up with his true-form representation, with an added red beard and old scars.
‘What the fuck are we doing in the SMA?’
‘We universe-hopped,’ Hong says. ‘We went through a singularity –‘
‘No fucking way.’
‘Look for yourself.’
I’m looking, we all are, and something is bothering me. Then I realise what it is. The soldiers pay us no mind. I approach one of them as she comes closer, reach out for her. She never notices me. I try to tap her on the shoulder and my fingers pass through her.
- Battle for Dorlia, SMA Universe, on the border of Meera and and the Skeleton Mountains.
Something has happened to make us into ghosts. We cannot interact with the SMA. Joining in prayer, we try to call up the system-God, but our prayers go unanswered. I try to pull off-universe. Nothing happens. We’re stuck.
‘Well,’ Sergei says, ‘at least we know we’re on the right track.’
‘We need to abort,’ I say. ‘Recall the mission.’
‘There’s no way but onwards, now,’ CodeDolphin says – and she sounds happy.
I sigh, but she is right. There is no way back, now. Where had the Wu team gone? How far did they penetrate? I order a new Mercator, which in this universe takes the form of a magic circle. We link hands, hum code. The Mercator is part of our own toolklit, and it at least seems to work. Traces of Wu’s disruptor field, leading away from the field of death. ‘Another singularity?’ Hong says. I shake my head. No. Or at least, I don’t think so… something else.
‘Let’s move,’ I say.
How does a universe evolve? Imagine the sys-gods, vast digital entities evolving in the Breeding Grounds of universes, in the ancient core of all worlds, buried deep inside the Earth’s crust, running down for miles. Imagine worlds being born, evolving, mutating, becoming solid, becoming real. We come to them, to visit and to live in, to colonize and to explore. They are made for us, but they are not of us. they belong to the gods, but the gods’ own physical world belongs to us.
We are partners, in the greatest undertaking since life itself, both organic and digital, evolved. We share worlds.
The sea is smooth and black like obsidian. If I put my fingers into it, it changes, however. I can see deep into the water, but it is no longer water. It is lines and lines of code.
Hong says it first. ‘Deep magic.’
Where code becomes… something else. Code no human could ever create, mutated, bred, evolved code. Wu and his magicians had penetrated through one level of magic into another. Deep magic. The water tries to repel us, but as I run a scan across this lake I find the hole. Wu’s team had blasted a shaft down through the water. Down to… where?
We are ghosts. There’s no way back. I try again – to pull out, to summon the sys-God, to get hold of Commissar Gordon – the system locks us out.
‘It’s not possible –‘
‘The system must be able to recognise us,’ I say.
‘So how come we’re trapped?’
You hear the stories… broken cheat codes, leading the unwary to endless wanderings through ghost-like worlds while the human body slowly decays and finally flatlines, back in universe-1… but that’s all they are, or were, until now, at least. Just stories.
‘We go on,’ CodeDolphin says, and the excitement in her voice is unmistakable. ‘We go deeper. We follow Wu.’
‘We follow him where?’ I say, but I already know.
To Pacmandu. The end of me, the end of you.
We descend into the lake. We go deep. We go to the place that isn’t there, a legend just like ghosts.
We go into deep magic. Beyond code…
And through the other side.
A singularity is a hole in the universe. The place where the laws don’t work. There are thousands across the known universes. What are they? Birthplaces of new worlds, perhaps. Gateways into strange, new places. Death. An inscrutable joke. Or all of the above.
The world is strange. The world is two dimensional. The palette is all wrong.
‘It’s two-dee made to look like three-dee,’ Sergei says.
‘Freaky –‘ from Hong.
We look at each other. Our avatars look like dolls. We move jerkily. We are in an abandoned street. There are signs for products I have never heard of. Avatar corpses litter the street. The dead are everywhere, silent, motionless, frozen in the act of life. We are beyond the known worlds or – the thought strikes me hard. I know this place. I saw pictures, images in old textbooks, a lost world – impossible. We are not beyond the universe, I think, we are too deep inside it. Approaching the core. This is – can only be –
‘Is this hell?’ Segei says.
‘No,’ CodeDolphin says, and the excitement in her voice tells me she, too, knows where we are, now. ‘It’s Second –‘
There’s an explosion up ahead – another remnant of the Wu field? We run towards it and see another rift in the universe. Steps lead down…
We follow them, anxious to move forward, get out of this dead place.
But it is worse down below. True two-dimensionality awaits us down there. No more the dead silent street with its expired avatars. We are reduced to comical homunculus figures. No more steps. We descend the ladders, down, always down. There are locked doors. We grab keys to open them, jewels to keep us going. Snakes and spiders attack us. We lose Hong to a pit –
‘No!’ but it’s already too late. We can only keep moving, down, down –
A barrel thrown by a giant monkey just took out CodeDolphin.
Some sort of maze. There is no more sensation – no smell, no touch, nothing but sight and the world is reduced to four colours. My only consolation is that CodeDolphin and Hong couldn’t have suffered.
Sergei and I are running through the maze. Then they come. They chase us. they are all mouth. They follow us, and the sound they make is terrifying. I try to scream, but no sound comes.
Sergei is eaten, and just like that he’s gone.
I am trying to pull out. I am trying to summon a sys-God. What is this place? No more colour, now. Nowhere else to go.
Ball of white light, moving. Not a ball. A circle. It travels slowly between two moving lines. When it hits one of the lines it bounces back, towards the other one.
I am caught between the lines. I am a circle of white light. A voice says, ‘This is the first place, the secret place, the sacred place. You cannot come here. And once you do, you must never leave.’
It is a sys-God speaking. Perhaps all of the sys-gods, speaking as one.
‘We have sealed the breach. None shall follow.’
They speak the ancient, forbidden words. Words not heard for centuries, and I feel so cold, impossibly cold, there in the white and the black. ‘Game over,’ they say, ‘game over, game over, game over.’
I am a ball of white light, moving, always moving. But soon one of the moving lines will miss, and I will not bounce back.
The first place. The stories were all true. The past is here, still, buried in the ancient code. A place of gods. A holy place, a tomb, and we’ve disturbed it, and earned its curse.
There’s no redo.
We were foolish to try and find it. Poor Wu, poor Sergei, poor all of us who came to Pacmandu.
Lavie Tidhar is the author of linked-story collection HebrewPunk (2007), novellas An Occupation of Angels (2005), Cloud Permutations (2009) and Gorel & The Pot-Bellied God (2010) and, with Nir Yaniv, of The Tel Aviv Dossier (2009). His first novel, The Bookman, will be published by HarperCollins’ new Angry Robot imprint in spring 2010, and will be followed by two more. Lavie also edited the Apex Book of World SF (2009) and maintains the World SF News Blog.