Between: 6

I’m still making these! This one is bit of an info dump, but hopefully some folks find it interesting.

“Okay, this time we’re going for the record.”

After some sudden excitement involving a hobgoblin, some sort of an invasion/attempted rescue, and himself being used in a game of keep away, things had quickly turned dull again for Philo. He now found himself locked in what he had to assume was a waiting room of some sort, since that was all it seemed to be good for. He spent the first few minutes trying to read the various signage on the walls. Whereas the letters were all familiar to him, they still traced out a sort of shorthand he had no hope of understanding. There was a sequence of vaguely humanoid silhouettes on the wall, with little outlines of successively smaller versions nested one inside the other like matryoshka dolls, each with a notation beside it. The one that was nearest to matching him was labeled “ST 1 QMT, LM 5 QMT, HM 10 QMT”. He’d stared at the numbers for several minutes once he’d spotted them, trying to brush aside the nagging concern that they might be prices per pound. When he got bored, he decided to take a seat. Of the five mismatched chairs available, he selected the wheelchair.

He and was currently attempting to balance on the back wheels. His personal record was fifteen seconds so far.

“Eight one-thousand, nine one-thousand, ten one-thousand,” he counted off, unsteadily maintaining his balance.

He was approaching the all-important fifteen second mark when the door at the far end of the room swung open. It startled him enough to send the wheelchair tipping over backwards. He tumbled to the floor, then sprang to his feet and dusted off his still soggy jumpsuit. Though the door was fully open, no one had entered, which fortunately spared Philo a bit of embarrassment. From his angle he could only see that the door was being held open by a metal brace, or something similar. There was a muffled conversation going on outside the door, but he couldn’t quite make it out.

A ‘things you should have been doing this whole time’ list suddenly burst into Philo’s mind. He realized that since he’d been locked in the room, he was technically a prisoner. It thus would have been an excellent use of his time to, for instance, plot his escape, or perhaps arm himself. ‘Learn to balance on a wheelchair’ wasn’t even near the top of the list. He briefly considered finding blunt object to pummel his visitor with and make a break for it, but it struck him that even if he was able to find his way out of the castle where he was being held, he would still be marooned on a floating hunk of twisty black stone. Plus, they’d probably send Rill or Mr. Stubbs to fetch him, and he had a feeling neither of them would be quite so cordial under those circumstances.

“Yes, thank you Chorkuk. I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” the visitor said from the hallway. The voice was distinctive, to say the least. It had a strangely exaggerated quality, swinging up and down in tone with the same general inflection of a normal voice, but at times leaping whole octaves rather making subtle adjustments. It also didn’t quite sound smooth enough to be natural, like it had been tone-corrected with cheap software. The gender of the speaker wasn’t immediately obvious.

A soft mechanical whir and rattle accompanied the stranger’s approach. What came into view looked a bit like a cylindrical aquarium combined with flying saucer. The aquarium made up the bulk of the contraption. It was about two feet tall and two feet in diameter, and it seemed to contain a wrinkly blue eggplant suspended in milky white gelatin. Attached to the base of the aquarium was a flat, cream colored disk. It was metallic and slightly flared at the bottom. The underside had three neon-blue rings pulsing slightly, presumably responsible for allowing the entire apparatus to hover. Strapped around the perimeter of the disc was a simple canvas tool belt, heavily loaded with items that absolutely didn’t belong there. Most prominent were a hand calculator with the ten digits he knew along with seventeen he didn’t, a magnifying glass, and an abacus. Sticking up from the rim of the hover-disk were two rounded “shoulders”, from which protruded two spindly robotic arms with exposed wire and hydraulics. Each arm ended in a three fingered pincer that looked like it might have come off a fancy skill crane. Poking up from the sealed top of the cylindrical tank was a smaller horizontal cylinder containing two iridescent green eyeballs with X shaped pupils. Two strands led down from the eyes to the wrinkly mass in the tank. A two-piece metallic “eye-lid” was hinged over each eye, and just above the buckle of the tool belt on the front side of the hover-disk was a row of green lights. Perhaps the strangest detail was a small pot of ink fastened to the top of the tank near one edge.

“I’m terribly sorry for the delay, newcomer,” it said with its oddly inflected voice. As it spoke, the row of lights faded and brightened along with the words. “As you may or may not be aware, we’ve had something of an incident involving a force from Heart Core.”

“I noticed,” Philo said.

“Excellent! Now, I’m sure you have many questions,” the hovering jar said, “But there is a protocol here, so I hope you don’t mind if we get through the preliminaries first. After that I’ll be glad to give you a proper introduction to The Between.”

“Can I ask just one question before we get started?”

“Well,” the robot said, hovering in a slight figure eight as he considered it. “One question can’t hurt, if it’s a quick one.”

“You aren’t going to slice me up into steaks and chops, are you?”

“Not unless you score exceptionally low on your aptitude tests,” the bot said. It reached back to two of the rear pockets of the tool belt to fetch a memo pad and quill pen, then skillfully dipped the tip of the pen into the pot of ink and began scrawling out notes.

“Really?”

“Yes! Though I wouldn’t worry. The ability to carry on a conversation is almost always sufficient to keep a new arrival out of the livestock bracket. I hope you won’t mind the observation, but you are refreshingly calm for a newcomer.”

“I’m told I have extreme psychological resilience,” he said.

“It shows! Now then. Let’s have your name.”

“Philo Hieronymus Middleton.”

“Excellent. Place of Origin?”

“Earth.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Not right now I can’t.”

“I take then that you are still suffering from memory loss? That is extremely common with science types. How long ago did you arrive?”

Philo tapped the headset. “One hundred and seventy-three hours.”

“Mmm. Unfortunate.”

“Why is that unfortunate?”

“Full memory recovery usually comes within the first few hours. You may require a procedure to achieve further recovery at this point. Something to work toward though! Let’s test the bounds of your impairment. Do you have any family?”

“I don’t know.”

“What is your occupation?”

“I think I’m a test subject.”

“A rather common occupation for science types.”

“Who said I was a science type?”

“Tallier Mors. Also, you’re from Earth. Most Earthlings are science types. Back to the questions, though. Age?”

“Uh… Twenties-ish?”

“Special skills?”

“Oh, I’ve got this.” Philo said. He pulled out a damp wadded up sock with a scribbled face on it and slipped it on to his hand. “Ahem. ‘ello. I’m Bosco.”

The robot stared at him without speaking for a moment, blinking its eyes with an audible click. “Entertainer. Anything else?”

“I can put a bunch of things in orbit around my capsule at the same time. And so far I’ve been able to balance a wheelchair on its back wheels for almost sixteen seconds.”

“… Yes. We’ll just underline Entertainer then. Well, barring a significant improvement of your memory, that concludes the formal preliminaries. It is wonderful to meet someone who isn’t ranting and raving about the impossibility of it all. Let me see now. Earth… I believe a handshake is an appropriate greeting, yes?”

The robot put out one of its pincers. Philo gingerly shook it. “How do you do?”

“Very well, thank you! Now, my name is Wrunx. That’s with a W and an X. My official role is logistician, my unofficial role is welcoming committee. Would you like me to give you the full orientation, or would you like to ask questions and have me fill in the gaps afterward?”

“I guess I’ve got some questions.”

“Splendid! Now is the time. Ask away!”

“I know this is Between… or The Between I guess. But what exactly does that mean?”

“Ah, an excellent place to start. The Between is a semi-physical pseudo dimension. The current theory with the most traction posits that it occupies the space between all other physical dimensions and temporal offsets. It is quite literally halfway between any two points in time and space, and that goes for all times and all spaces. People tend to end up here when they test an imperfect method for instantaneous transportation. Most often it is an attempt to open a portal between two points on the same dimensional plane. Occasionally it is a botched attempt at interdimensional travel. Less often, would-be time travelers find themselves here. And of course there are the natural phenomena that lead here.”

“Why is everyone so preoccupied with knowing magic here? And why does everyone treat science like it’s useless?”

“Well, science is largely useless here.”

“Says the hovering robot.”

“Ah. An excellent point, and a fine illustration of how and why things work here in The Between. You see, all science is based on a handful of physical principles and constants. Gravity, electromagnetism, quantum-level physics, things of that nature. An electronic device functions because electrons will flow from an area of greater charge to an area of lower charge, interacting with various components along the circuit in predictable ways. Along the same lines, a toroidal quantum singularity initiator works by injecting a quantity of negative mass into the center of a–”

“Okay, I’m not going to try to wrap my head around that, so we’ll just mark that down as ‘things work the way they work.'”

“Correct. Now different dimensional planes have their own laws of physics. Some similar, some vastly different, but science exists only when those laws remain constant. Such is not the case here in The Between.”

“The laws of physics change here?”

“Endlessly, and at the merest whim. And strictly speaking, a law that changes isn’t a law at all. Therefore, the laws of physics don’t exist here. That means that any scientific method for entering The Between cannot be used to leave The Between. The underlying principles of its operation simply don’t exist.”

“But magic works?”

“Perfectly, and with much less effort.”

“Why?”

“Because existence in The Between is based almost entirely upon perception and will. It isn’t a place of the body, it is a place of the mind. That’s why living things continue to live here. After all, your brain relies upon all of the same physical principles as whatever device brought you here, so by rights it should cease to function as soon as it arrives. But it doesn’t because you have a consciousness, and your consciousness cannot conceive of its own non-functionality, so it mandates that you must function. You will yourself into being. Imposing one’s will upon the fabric of existence is precisely what magic is, and thus magic is supremely effective here. In the strictest terms, this whole universe runs exclusively on magic.”

“That’s… confusing.”

“It’s only the start of it. I, for instance, am not a hovering robot. I am a hovering cyborg. Organic brain and eyes. But long before I came here, I came to accept the equipment that keeps me alive as part of me. When I arrived, I perceived myself to function, and thus all of the parts that I perceived to be part of me continued to function as well.”

“Well why does this thing work then?” he asked, pointing to the headset.

“There always seems to be at least a bit of carryover functionality. Simpler items work without much trouble, but sometimes more complex ones do as well. Perhaps you knew what it was and what it was supposed to do, and most importantly, you expected it to work, and so it did. Technically, it is working magically.”

“Well then why couldn’t I just take the capsule that brought me here back by believing it would work?”

“Quite a few reasons, actually. First, most people cannot choose to believe something, regardless of what they may say to the contrary. Belief, at least of the sort that allows you to impose your will on The Between, runs far deeper than anything one has voluntary control over. Second, in order to leave this place, your means for doing so will need to function both here and in your destination. Willing something into functionality is sufficient here, but transporting elsewhere requires you to bridge realities. The Between was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt on your way in, but your home reality is most likely far more strict. You might say that the door is locked from the other side.”

“But since magic works here, if you used magic to get here, you can use magic to get out.”

“Precisely.”

“Well why doesn’t one of the magic users here just send everyone home?”

“Because all of the people who know how to leave The Between already have, and they usually do it immediately after arriving without ever knowing there was more to this place than the endless white void.”

“Oof.”

“Indeed.”

“So… What’s the deal with me not being hungry or sleepy, but Rill taking a nap and talking about eating?”

“You were speaking with Rill? Most newcomers, and current residents for that matter, tend to bear considerable ill will against the Fetchers. Regardless, you won’t get tired or hungry here because technically time isn’t progressing. It just seems like it is because we universally expect it to. That said, if you do something mystically taxing, traveling from one place to another is the most common example, you will need to sleep to recover. Likewise, if you are badly hurt, you may need some food to recover fully.”

“And what’s with gravity?”

“Gravity pulls you toward the ground. It is generally obvious what counts as the ground and what doesn’t.”

“… I gotta tell you, a lot of this doesn’t make sense.”

“That’s perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this place. It doesn’t need to make sense to you. Your will isn’t the only one at work here. Something just needs to make sense to most of us. You can have your personal reality overruled if the collective expectation runs contrary to it. There’s a democratic aspect to existence here.”

“Well, hopefully there aren’t very many idiots skewing the way things work.”

“It all averages out. It is actually rather remarkable how quickly one grows accustomed to it. Any other questions?”

“Let’s see… Oh. What’s the deal with mermaids and sea serpents being able to fly?”

“They can do that with no water for the same reason that you can breathe with no air. They expected to be able to, so they could.”

“Wait… there’s no air?”

“Only the little bursts that come through when a newcomer shows up.”

“… Well… If I know that now, shouldn’t I be suffocating? Isn’t all of existence a placebo here?”

“We’ve found, fortunately, that once something starts working usually it keeps working. Again, rock-solid, implicit belief is almost impossible to truly destroy.”

“Handy.”

“Well, if that’s all, we’ll take some measurements, then get you started on your aptitude tests to see what sort of job you’ll be able to do here.”

Wrunx tucked the quill pen into its ink pot like a feather in a cap, then led Philo to a complicated arrangement of levers, pulleys, and platforms. While Philo was waiting, he’d thought it was piece of abstract art. He stepped onto the lowest platform, causing the whole assemblage to shift worryingly. Wrunx then began to drop seemingly random objects onto a smaller platform, including three spoons and what might be a shoe, though clearly one designed for a differently shaped foot.

“So give it to me straight. What are the best and worst cases for me, in terms of jobs?” Philo asked.

“Well, obviously your lack of mystic skill is a bit of an impediment. And your inability to fly is problematic, too. I’m sorry to say we don’t have much call for entertainers, either. The worst case, and the most likely one at least initially, is manual labor.”

“Manual labor? Like what? Breaking rocks and stuff?”

“Well, if you turn out to be mechanically inclined you’ll be building and repairing structures and the like. We also have farms. On Heart Core there are mines as well.”

“That sounds like I’m going to have a pretty dismal time here.”

“Well… yes. But look at the bright side!”

Philo waited. “… Which is?”

“Oh, I haven’t the foggiest, but there must be one.”

“Well, is there any way I can work my way up?”

“We’ve got a few functional vehicles which might expand your usefulness somewhat, but those are in high demand, so you’d have to show an extreme talent. Depending on how well you get along with the general populace, there are some less strenuous jobs. Messenger, courier, things of that nature. The particularly talented will find their way to administration. That’s how I became Logistician.”

“Which means what exactly?”

“I keep records and work out precisely how things will need to be done with the resources and personnel available. Resource management is very important.”

“Uh… if people don’t need to eat or sleep, why do you even need resources? Or jobs for that matter?”

“Well, one needs to keep busy, if only to maintain sanity. Terrible things can happen to a mind in an eternity devoid of motivation,” it said. Its demeanor then changed somewhat and it lowered its voice. “We’ve also got an Overseer who is… ambitious. It tends to absorb a great deal of our resources.”

“Define ambitious.”

“He… has designs on Heart Core.”

“Okay, define designs. And also Heart Core.”

Wrunx noted something and had Philo step off of the platform. The cyborg led him to the section of wall marked by the humanoid silhouettes and began reeling out knotted string to take various measurements, including his height and waist.

“Heart Core is unquestionably the best established settlement we’ve yet discovered in The Between. It is at least two hundred times as massive, in terms of raw landmass. Possibly much more. It might even be endless, though I can’t be sure, as only the Fetchers have ever been there. Particularly Mr. Stubbs. He indicates they’ve got six times the population, and resources to spare. Our overseer wants to… well, he wants to claim it.”

“But they have six times as many people as you,” he said. “Won’t that be kind of hard to pull off?”

“We’ve been fairly unsuccessful thus far, but we’re making progress. Rill is one of the best we’ve ever had at fending off recovery attempts. And Stubbs in particular is getting very good at recruiting.”

“That’s when you take people from Heart Core against their will, right?”

“Exactly.”

“I’m surprised this Heart Core place hasn’t just crushed Shard, if they’ve got all of those resources and people.”

“Well, that’s the fortunate thing.  Heart Core isn’t very hostile at all. The only times we clash are when we recruit and when they recover the recruits. Over here, please, we’ll need to see how strong you are.”

Wrunx led Philo to a set of weights. They ranged from fairly standard barbells to massive triangular hunks of metal with loops on top.

“Just lift them, smallest to largest, until you reach one you can’t lift.”

Philo finished working over the recent facts in his head as he tried each weight. “Hang on, hang on… So let me see if I understand. You call your place Shard. Your headquarters is a twisty black castle on a flying black spike. You routinely kidnap people from another place, and your ruler wants to conquer that place.”

“That’s broadly accurate.”

“You guys are the bad guys,” Philo observed.

“I prefer not to dwell upon the moral aspect of my actions.”

“Why?”

“Because the knowledge that I’m spending an eternity facilitating the suicidal whims of a tyrant isn’t the sort of thing a healthy mind can dwell upon without descending into madness.” Wrunx said shakily. An instant later it snapped back to its cheerful attitude. “Still, you’re a little above average in strength for your size. Let’s move on, shall we?”

—-

Well, that’s it for now. Next week we’ll probably get to meet the suicidally whimsical tyrant.

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