"The idea is that there are millions of universes arranged in a symmetrical loop. Radiating away from a central point. All focused in on the middle."
Mitch Calrus, hunched over on the sofa looking over a mug of coffee at Seph Baird standing above him, is blank. "Right?"
"To the left of us there's another universe just like ours. And to the right of us there's another universe just like ours. And there's a loop, and there could be billions of universes all in the loop. Berloff called it a 'chorus' of universes because all of them are... metaphorically 'singing the same song'. Eventually you get back to where you started. You have to, because of symmetry. And there were some calculations to back it up. But you can't prove it. Because any signal or object you fired off to your left... the universe to your right would simultaneously fire the same signal off to their left, right back at you. Sure, the exchange would take place, everything moves one jump around the chorus, but from your point of view nothing changes. So you can't test it. It's just a thought experiment. So it was proposed once in the 1960s, and Berloff wrote one paper on it, and then he died and everybody forgot all about it. It's called the Chorus Hypothesis."
"Until now." Seph produces a heavy black object the shape and density of an Olympic discus. "It's real. At least, it's in the Script. And as of today the Chorus Hypothesis has been upgraded to a Theory."
Fifteen minutes into the flight to Dublin, Mike Murphy takes a surreptitious look out the airplane window and spots the flicker of green. He nods, gets up and excuses himself.
He shuts the lavatory door, waits a moment, but even though he's ready for it, the appearance of Mitchell Calrus out of thin air just an inch front of him still makes him jump. Mitch temporarily pulls off his oxygen mask. He's wearing four layers of clothes, a full-body climbing harness, a heavy winter coat over that, and a backpack. The wetsuit, he's discovered, is superfluous. All he needs is the oxygen. He turns clumsily, presenting the backpack, which contains his O2 tank and a collection of additional equipment. Murphy pulls out the black discus and a pair of screwdrivers.
"You have any trouble following me onboard?" hisses Murphy.
"I have less free air left than I'd like," says Mitch, "but other than that, no. This is the thing. Do what needs doing. You should see what this plane looks like from 4D, it's unbelievable."
"I think you can get big architectural exploded diagrams," says Murphy. He prises open the discus' casing and tightens a few screws. He spends several laborious minutes fiddling with settings using the tiny seven-segment LED readouts to get information about the device and the few available buttons for input. Eventually he's happy and clips the casing back together. "You're good to go. You remember how this works? Tell me the procedure."
While Murphy stows the tools away, Mitch recites the steps he's been taught word for word. "There really is no other way to duplicate zero gravity?"
"Not on Earth, and not without buying time on the Vomit Comet. And that would be expensive."
"I have cash..."
"And red flags would go up. When you disappeared mid-flight. Look, you trust Arika?"
"But you'd trust her with your life."
"Sure. A life isn't something people muck about with."
Mitch hands over the satellite radio and puts his mask back on.
Arika McClure's flight suit was all but destroyed during the flight from America. Repairing it has been a non-starter and wind insulation is a non-issue so she's pacing the 737 at five hundred miles per hour in jeans and a scruffy old olive green coat. They're flapping at rates you could measure in kilohertz. They're just not designed to move this fast. I need to buy biking leathers, she thinks.
The bulky grey radio on her waist bleeps and the phones in her ear, cranked up to maximum volume, can just about be heard to deliver Murphy's words: "(You've got everything? Okay.) Dropping in three. Two. One."
Arika doubles her sense-rate as Mitch's dark, oddly-weighted figure drops out of the underside of the plane, the discus on a lanyard around one wrist. For one second he is blasted by the air stream, losing forward momentum and dropping back behind the plane, then he goes intangible and drops like a stone.
True freefall cannot be achieved from a simple parachute jump. Air resistance slows you. The rate at which you accelerate is less than the pull of gravity. Eventually you hit terminal velocity and then you're not even accelerating at all. True freefall, like the discus needs for its hypersensitive components to even be tested, let alone operate, can only be achieved by going into space, or chartering a plane to perform a perfect parabolic power-dive, or the cheap way - recruiting the Four-Dimensional Man and having him make himself intangible to the air.
Arika McClure fixes her eye on the loop of purple climbing rope protruding from somewhere around Mitch's neck - the loop connected to the climbing harness he's wearing under the coat and backpack. Meanwhile Mitch is holding down the big button with both hands and shouts the word "One."
The activities of humankind do not concern the colossal, ineffable, super-beings of the dimensions above ours any more than the splitting of a single bacterium concerns a typical human. For the most part, the larger and the smaller creature in each situation are so different in scale as to be irrelevant to one another.
But there are such things as biological scientists. And microscopes. And dangerous infections.
Alef is doing things it shouldn't. Something wakes up and starts watching.
It is a very bad idea to attract the gods' attention.
"Two," gulps Mitch as odd, undetectable other-dimensional centripetal accelerations begin to affect his body. He hangs onto the disc with both hands, carried along behind it as it accelerates. The Script says there's a fifty-fifty chance it'll work. Doctor Mike Murphy and Doctor Josephine Baird say there's a fifty-fifty chance the discus won't just conk out in his hands and need a second attempt. And Seph knows he's fifty-fifty on whether he really wants to leave her anyway--
The universe is like a spiral. All particles moving in circles clockwise or anticlockwise around the central point, each particle one of millions of identical siblings all duplicating each other's actions so the arrangement looks the same whatever perspective you pick. Mitch feels like he's standing between a pair of full-length mirrors facing each other at a shallow, hundredth-of-an-arc-second angle, so that there are millions of his exactly identical alternate selves arrayed out in front of him, and they're racing away, dragging him along, bursting seamlessly through each mirror just as an exactly identical self bursts out of the mirror behind to replace him.
He hangs on for dear life. "Threeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee--"
Ching-Yu Kuang is in the middle of the space under the parabolic Medium Preonic Receiver dish, on his knees, his forehead to the ground, his hands over his head, trying to think his way rationally through the pain. He feels like his stomach is full of grey fog. He's been breathing, eating and dreaming in Eka for a week. It's all he's got left to nourish him after Susie.
"Everything's sentient," he says to himself. He turns his head sideways to where a notepad and a ballpoint are within arm's reach and starts scribbling from his unconventional position on the floor. He scribbles extremely simple things which he knows are obvious, but he needs to pin them down on the paper before they do more damage to his brain. "Everything's alive up there. Every cross-section. The power set. Of living things. Is a living thing.
"Of course the cell's alive.
"Of course the god damn prison wall's alive--"
A neon yellow splinter is hurtling kata around the circumference of the cosmic starfish/snowflake/whirlpool of universes, a perfectly symmetrical constellation of yellow splinters each chasing the next one's tail in a circle, blinking from one identical universe to the next, gathering momentum.
Pushing against the cell boundary. Abrading it. Such a small device, with so much drive, a tiny little engine with the power of a sun, grinding against the exterior wall of the universe until a hole is worn and the speed is too great for the vehicle and its passenger to be retained and they spurt off at a tangent, disconnected from three-plus-one-dimensional space and jettisoned out into the scintillating glory of the next least significant Totality.
Mitch Calrus blinks four-dimensional eyes.
Colour assaults him. Things whose geometry he doesn't have the capacity to comprehend bounce and interact and change shape in ways which look impossible. He dimly senses the gigantic multidimensional reservoir of indistinct, ambiguously-labelled Power and arcs up towards it on a free trajectory, unable to guess how fast he is moving.
He knows that the power and the knowledge attached thereto is his. It's like he can process the metadata. He can see the pinhole fractures connecting it to the Earth below, the cascade--
And then something bigger than his imagination rises up behind it. An eye - he knows it's an eye, a detailed high-resolution sensory perception organ - opens, bigger than the entire multidimensional billion-universe array dropping away below him. It trains itself on him. And the identity of the creature, a packet of pure, refined information, arrives in his mind. And he knows what it is.
"Five," says Mitch, tightly clutching the black object in what he is only half-sure are still his hands. Real space and air are an indescribable distance away below him now. He knows he's not going to drop back. He knows he's hit escape velocity. All he has to do is prove he has the right to keep going.
"I created you," he screams. "The Enemy is dead. You can let me out!"
The prison cell wall/warden considers his words. Then reaches forward and does something to his vector. Cancels most of it out. Sends him plunging back into reality. And does something else. Does something to his landing point. Pulls information out of it, as violently as a man tearing out another man's heart.
"Pipe left bracket Alef right bracket pipe equals perception left parenthesis mid-dot comma pipe left bracket Alef right bracket pipe right parenthesis plus, plus, plus, plus, one. I saw this. Where did I see this? Where is this from?"
Ching darts pseudo-randomly around the room, from stack of paperwork to stack of paperwork, systematically corrupting the order of pages in each one, experiencing the agony of not being able to find what he is looking for.
"I saw this somewhere," he says. "It didn't just arrive in my head for no reason," he says, attempting to convince himself. "Alef is our universe. Pipe left bracket right bracket pipe is the intelligent population of Alef. Mid-dot is me. Mid-dot is 'you'. Mid-dot is the reader."
Mitch Calrus' waveform collapses. He slams bodily into the newly-dropped stone dividing wall between Alef and the next universe at a velocity which is perfectly perpendicular to conventional three-dimensional notions of velocity. It doesn't kill him. He can't feel impacts and accelerations in directions of motion in which he doesn't even exist.
Part of the discus explodes.
Arika McClure, in slow motion, swan-diving two metres up and behind Calrus the whole time, sees the tiny detonation. Mitch flails and drops the hardware. Arika slips a hand through the rope loop and begins decelerating, yanking him to a halt. "Hurk!" cries Mitch as the harness tightens unexpectedly around his chest and thighs. A few fragments of discus dangle from his wrist, the rest just drop.
He focuses on what he can see ahead of him, which is fields and hills and small settlements. They're kilometres above Wales. Snowdonia. Reality. Green and grey and blue and white. It's a lot more vertiginous now he's stopped falling.
"Jesus Christ," announces Calrus.
Calrus just laughs manically. "I have no idea. It felt like 2001. Where's Seph meeting us again? How far are we from that town with the ridiculous name I can't pronounce?"
"Oh my God."
Calrus looks up. Arika isn't looking at him. She's looking at the plane, off in the distance, a mile away by now. It's covered in repulsive black lightning. It looks like spindly stop-motion spider legs are crawling all over it, like a Lovecraftian monster from another dimension is trying to crawl out into the world through a portal inside the passenger section. The whole effect is silent and it makes Arika's skin crawl and Mitch's arm hairs rise.
That image lasts a fraction of a second, enough time for Arika to blink, and there's a flash of light and the plane calmly rolls over into a nose-dive.
Calrus is shouting something, it could be "drop me" or it could very well be "don't drop me" but Arika doesn't know because she's gone to maximum acceleration and is thinking much faster than he can speak.
If the plane crashes hundreds of people will die. Nobody she has specific emotional connections to, except maybe the man Murphy whom she barely knows, but they're still people. She's got a lot of souls on her conscience already. But if she saves it, everybody will know she saved it. And then everybody will know. They'll know who she is and what she did. And it'll be over.
Unless she runs away afterwards.
She can run pretty fast.
Arika starts accelerating for the plane, Mitch Calrus in tow, flailing helplessly in panic. "No! No!"
By the time they catch up with the vapour trail - elapsed time is fifteen seconds - the plane has performed a complete barrel roll. Its starboard wing is aimed straight downwards and the plane is still rolling. Arika catches hold of the fuselage somewhere just below the upper row of passenger windows and swings Calrus at the hull, hard. Calrus raises his hands across his face and instinctively goes intangible. He passes through three columns of seats, grabs hold of the fourth and slows himself enough to stop. It's a bad fall. Four-dimensional friction hurts. The plane twists and throws him at the ceiling, where he manages to wedge himself for long enough to get his bearings.
With a bit of luck nobody even noticed his arrival. Everybody around him is already screaming. A mobile phone is ringing. Oxygen masks, headphones and plastic cutlery are ricocheting around the scenery. What's a little more insanity in a picture like this?
Mitch phases out of his backpack and tries to figure out which direction the cockpit is in.
Arika plants her hands against the meatiest part of the top of the port wing - that is, the side which is currently facing downwards - and starts pushing, hard. Worrying throbbing vibrations push back against her hands (it's the noise of the metal protesting at a frequency too low for her to hear), but she saw a YouTube video one time of a plane wing getting bent until it broke, and it bent a lot more than this one is bending, and besides the wing is supposed to take one-half of the plane's entire weight on it, it's the strongest part of the whole infrastructure, right?
Wait, wasn't that a bigger plane?
She dashes out to a distance, speeds up fractionally, watches the plane's motion for a moment, slows down again, dashes in and continues pushing. The metal starts to give under her hands, so she splays her whole body against the wing to spread the pressure, but the human brain is not good at the mechanics of pushing things when there's nothing to push against, so she keeps having to check to make sure she's making progress.
But it's working.
Every time Arika connects with the wing she makes a doom noise that Mitch, inside, hears. She's moving so fast that doom-doom-doom-doom-doom takes all of a few seconds, each impact rapidly rotating the plane a few degrees in an unexpected direction. Then, without warning, Mitch stops bouncing off furniture and is able to get a grip on a nearby armrest. The roll is stopped. He's upright. The aisle is underneath his feet.
I need to see where we're going.
Fortunately, the direction of the cockpit is still steeply downhill. But the plane is still yawing wildly, spinning from north to east to south to west, a full revolution every second. With the sky outside only visible at the corners of his eyes and through tiny portholes he has no reference frame for the machine's motion. All he knows is that some invisible and randomly fluctuating force is pulling him to the right.
He tries to switch off the portion of his brain which is concerned with balance and look at the world around him objectively. Down the aisle is forwards. Up the aisle is backwards.
Horrific, terrifying noises emanate from the plane's skeleton. It's not supposed to be pushed around by superhumans. It can take far bigger forces, but those are forces acting on the whole structure, not through a pair of hand-sized contact points. Still, the centrifugal component lessens and eventually stops as Arika hauls backwards on the tip of the port wing, gradually correcting the plane's out-of-control yaw. Two out of three, thinks Mitch Calrus as he shakes the blurs from his head, loses his grip on the nearest seat's support strut and falls nose-first into the cockpit door. All Arika has to deal with now is the fact that the plane is ploughing into the Earth at Mach 0.8 and an angle of maybe eighty degrees.
Mitch sticks his head through the cockpit door. Seeing that there's room, he leans backwards, lets his whole body go intangible and slides through it, slipping out of his climbing harness at the same time for mobility. There's one pilot in the seat. He's slumped over the controls. No sign of a co-pilot. Mitch slides down, hits the control deck feet-first, balances as best he can without hitting any important-looking switches and pushes the pilot's body up off the yoke. With difficulty, he levers the pilot out of his seat onto the floor, takes his position, braces his feet against the controls and starts hauling the yoke backwards.
Red warning lights are flashing all over the instrumentation panels. The altimeter is an unreadable blur. Out of the corner of his eye he keeps catching momentary dark green flashes.
The plane's wings are still attached and functional. At five hundred miles per hour horizontally, the bird stays in the sky, so the only problem is one of pitch, and with a superhuman, even a small one, lifting from the nose, and the plane's control surfaces pulled up as far as they can go under Mitch's inexpert commands, it's a problem that slowly but surely begins to correct itself.
Arika's operating at close to top speed. Thirty seconds for Mitch Calrus has been nearly two hours for her. The whole experience is almost relaxing.
She is completely disconnected from the urgency of the situation. She has no idea how hard they're going to hit the ground.
On the best day of her life, the young, un-powered Arika McClure could give piggyback rides to older brother Roy, a weight of just under 70 kilograms. Her physique is essentially unchanged aside from the strictly metered energy stream to which she is now connected which multiplies her strength by two to the eighth power. That gives her a confirmed and tested lifting capacity of a little less than eighteen tons. A typical cruising Boeing 737 weighs sixty.
They're less than half a kilometre above the ground when she realises that they aren't actually going to make it. She breaks off from the front of the plane and aims at the starboard wing, trying to tear it off and reduce the weight she has to carry, but the aluminium alloy just crushes between her hands, becoming pliable and tough but impossible to tear. She's not strong enough. Jason could do it. Jason's not here.
Arika and Mitch both spot the same valley ahead of them. Arika steers the aircraft towards it. There's a mountain at the near end of the valley, but if they clear it, they can belly-flop on the far side and slide downhill to a halt and there's every chance that half of the passengers and flight crew will survive. That's the plan.
It's a terrible excuse for plan.
Mitch pulls both throttles back to the minimum. All he's been doing for the last thirty seconds is holding the yoke. His mind has had time to wander. He is now absolutely certain that he is going to die. Arika gives it all she's got, lifting from the nose cone. It almost works. The plane is nearly horizontal. Another few seconds and they would have made it.
The last thing Mitch sees before they collide with the mountainside is the airspeed indicator, just dropping below a hundred and forty knots. There's a split second of agony, and then everything goes black.
"We're imprisoned in this universe," says the telephone. "There are routes upwards to higher places than this. Routes we're not supposed to know exist. There's a god observing all of us, waiting for what we might try to do. And every time it sees we're trying, trying something new or powerful, it'll block the path and take away our tools and make our cell still smaller. It changed the laws of physics to keep us quarantined.
"The kata-ring accelerator's tech is permanently gone from Alef. It killed the scientific axioms stone dead.
"It sees everything and knows everything. It's intelligent. Incalculably intelligent. It knows our names and doesn't care that we're intelligent. It destroys minds to guard the cell's integrity and slowly, surely, it's becoming more aggressive. And outsmarting it is going to be difficult."
"Murphy's brain-dead," says Mitch Calrus. "He's breathing and looking at me but he's not talking. He's vegetative. Everybody on the whole plane is vegetative. What happened to it? What was that lightning?"
"It was aimed at Murphy, Murphy's knowledge," says Ching. "He was one of our tools, our weapons--"
And the phone cuts out. It's Murphy's mobile phone. Mitch and Arika found him in the aisle towards the tail end of the plane, not far from the lavatories. Bleeding from the forehead after being thrown about, but not so drastically as to be uncontrollable. The phone was in his pocket, ringing. Ching had tried to warn them to stop the experiment. Too late.
The plane is lodged inside the mountain. Mitch phased the whole thing into the fourth dimension for a fraction of a second and then it dropped back down and 4D full-body friction between rock and metal airframe, friction of a kind which had previously only existed in applied mathematics papers, brought the aircraft to a screaming three gee halt. The nose cone protrudes ten feet out into open air and the rest of the fuselage is interlocked impossibly with the mountain, like the universe's collision detection was temporarily put on hold.
Arika got in by smashing the cockpit window.
The phone was ringing when Mitch found it. But no one in their right mind expects reliable signal under a Welsh mountain. Mitch closes it and stands up, at a loss for what to do.
"Mike Murphy built the discus," says Arika. "This thing you were going to use to leave the universe. He built it. Was he the only one who knew how it worked?"
"Seph," says Mitch. "Seph and Mike built it together. They're the only ones who knew anything about it. There was some guy called Berloff but he's been dead for years-- You need to take me to Seph."
"We have to wait for help to arrive!"
Mitch shoots a look at Arika that almost hits her physically. Everybody around them is asleep, vegetative, catatonic, harmless. There are injuries, but there's nothing either of them can do. There are injuries. But they're not life-threatening. And the help is already on its way. "And we don't want to be here when help arrives," says Arika, speaking both their thoughts.
"They'll ask questions we don't want to answer. You saved maybe a hundred and fifty lives," says Mitch. "Now help me save one more. Take me to Seph! Now!"
Josephine Baird is eight miles from the crash site, in an otherwise empty car park in the tiny village of Trawsfynydd, sitting in her car. Her phone is ringing. Every twenty seconds it gets cut off as the caller gets directed to her voicemail. And then it starts ringing again. And she doesn't answer it.