This story, such as it is, dates from June 2001 and was actually written as an assignment for my Writer's Craft course in the last year of high school. My intention in it was to closely emulate the style used by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine, down to most of the story being one of the characters actually narrating - I wonder how much ink went into printing all of Wells' extra apostrophes back in the day. After rereading it now, I think I pulled it off a lot better than, say, an attempt I made to emulate Heinlein's style in the same course, which I thankfully no longer have because that was one of the ones I would rather burn than share with the world.
Give this one a chance, sez I. As with previous entries in the Common Words series, this is being released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.
The Worlds Machine
by Andrew Barton
The Worlds Machine
by Andrew Barton
The Worlds Traveller - as I will refer to him to protect his identity - was relating a perplexing tale to us. His grey eyes flashed, as if they were portals to the sum total of all the knowledge that any man could know, and he spoke with a sense of youth and vigor that had only days previously all but disappeared from his being. Computers of every make and model filled every nook and cranny in the room, their hums combining to form a mechanical symphony. The Traveller himself nearly danced from keyboard to keyboard, not even missing a beat while speaking as he did so.
"I understand that you may not believe my findings," said the Traveller, "as they, admittedly, lack a firm grounding in the realm of physics. Nevertheless, let me put a question to you good sirs; what is physics except a struggle to understand the realm of creation without knowing the entire sum of its parts? No, as much as it may be authoritative, much of science today is comparable to a child attempting to resolve the rituals of proper society."
"You can't shove all accepted wisdom aside simply because you don't think it reflects reality," said Watt, a smart-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and hands that looked naked when not holding briefcases. "Even if there are some areas in which current knowledge isn't up to par, you can't say you've found a way to ignore the lot as if it doesn't make any difference."
"Ah, but I never said anything of the sort!" said the Traveller, smiling with glee like a child free of responsibility. "There remain many holes in what science can explain about the world. For these past four years, it's been my singular goal to exploit that. Mr. Steffel," he said, fixing his attention upon the jeans-clad man, "what can you tell me about potentiality?"
"That any particular event has a particular chance of occurring?" the man concluded, after a few minutes of prodding and explanation on the part of the Worlds Traveller.
"Yes, along those lines, indeed," said the Traveller. "At any point in time, as the river of futurity continues its eternal flow, any event is, theoretically, possible. Even though the past is immutable in the traditional sense, even the tiniest action can have an unpredictable effect on how the future unfolds. If one of you were to spontaneously depart this residence, you may well have set a chain of events into motion that culminates with the fall of an empire. Or by not doing so, you may trigger the same effect, or an entirely different one. The point is, the future is inherently chaotic, and the smallest change in the past could transform our present day into something wholly unrecognizable."
"You yourself admitted that the past is immutable," said Abrams, a man who seemed to be happy only when pointing out the shortcomings of another. "And then you launch into an explanation of what may happen if the past is changed! Do you even know yourself what you are talking about, man?"
"Of course, to be sure," said the Worlds Traveller. "Think for a moment. Knowing that we have indeed been endowed with freedom of choice, there is any number of possible actions any of you could take at this moment that would doubtlessly influence the future. It is not a specious assumption to suggest that as long as humankind has been able to think, it has had the gift of free will. You may claim that you are insignificant in the scope of history, and I would be inclined to agree; out of the unnumbered billions that have walked this Earth, only the tiniest handful have risen to find a place in our history books. Nevertheless, every person in that tiniest handful had just the same capacity for freedom of choice as you men do here and now."
"So what you're saying is that the great men of history could easily have made choices other than those that memory recalls," suggested Steffel.
"Precisely! My friends, there is nothing in existence which would force a soul to choose the very same option each time it is presented. No, it is far more likely that the exact reverse is true, and that a soul will choose every option if it is presented! In fact, it has been rumored that whenever a choice is faced by any fraction of the universe, it selects both - from one universe springs two, where both possibilities have come to pass!"
"But you cannot be saying that the universe freely splits itself in a manner akin to the lowliest bacteria," said Watt. "Surely..."
"That is exactly what I'm saying! Gentlemen, somewhere beyond these walls, beyond the stars, beyond the very walls of space itself, I am giving this exact lecture, saying these exact words, except that other me is wearing white socks instead of brown. Adrift in that sea of possibilities are worlds where America has never existed, Christianity fell in the face of Islam and communism presides over the world. Somewhere, in some other world, anything that you can possibly imagine not only could happen, but has happened."
"I assume you have some proof for such a forthright statement?" asked Abrams. "From where I sit, all I can see is the wild tale of someone who is shut up in a laboratory for far longer than is good for the body or mind."
"Yes, I admit, well... take this as you like most to take it. If you are of the opinion, as am I, that what I am about to tell you is real and has actually happened, I welcome your support in the matter. Conversely, you can also take this as a fiction, a tale that I have brewed to illustrate the complexity and chaos of what would, on the surface, seem to be an ordinary and simple life."
The Worlds Traveller leaned back in a cushioned chair and twirled a pencil between his fingers. "My friends, I have seen vistas which no person born under this sky has ever witnessed. I have been an explorer in an alien world. I have a devised a means to travel through the dimensions - not to futurity, but to alternity."
"It is a feat of unflagging tenacity for an object to penetrate the aether that seperates the dimensions, and it was for that purpose I have invested so much of my life in building the vehicle with which I might pierce those walls. It is a triumph of engineering, a marvel of mechanics that looks as out of place even among the most advanced contrivances of our time as a flintlock musket would in the days of Babylonia. Yet it is the centerpiece to the whole affair. Without it, I could not hope to even dream about such a quest as I have undertaken.
"Once I had seen to it that the house would not be disturbed for some time, and made the proper arrangements should I not return from this journey beyond space, I set into the confines of my laboratory. The Worlds Machine, as I had come to call it, stood in the precise center of the room, its polished finish standing out against the fraying paint and dust-covered shelves which I had not found time to rectify. It looked much the same as it had since its outer skin had gone on, but on that day it felt... different. There was a certain electricity in the air, as if it knew its day had dawned and was ready to do the task for which it had been designed.
"Once I had turned on the engine and the Machine began to hum and purr, I deposited a handful of items I deemed important in the space behind the couch from which I would operate the controls. Against what was in essence a small cargo bay, built in the event that I came upon an artifact which I could not abandon but be unable to carry otherwise, the supplies I had brought seemed pathetically small. There was a Kodak there as well, with fifty rolls of film to its name, as was a video camera and tape recorder for further proof of whatever I might find.
"I made one look - hopefully not the last I would ever make - around the laboratory which had been my room for so long before I ducked into the machine. As I did so, I noticed that the holster I wore inside my jacket was empty. Cursing myself for my potentially fatal lack of foresight, I ducked out for a brief moment to retrieve my favored pistol from its lockbox. Though I sincerely hoped that the need to use it would not present itself, it would be an extraordinary stupidity to invest so much effort only to arrive in a situation where the lack of an effective weapon would spell inescapable doom.
"The door made a reassuring sound as it sealed behind me. The Worlds Machine was now a fully self-contained craft, with my air being drawn from its own storage tanks rather than from the atmosphere surrounding me. It was a sensible precaution, built on the premise that I might find myself in a world where the atmosphere had become poisonous in some way or had disappeared entirely. I made sure that the hatches were all sealed fast before I truly began this fantastic voyage.
"Even to my own eye, the controls of the Machine are remarkably simple, when taking into account the duties they must perform. Foremost among them was a panel of numbers, thirteen columns of zeroes followed by a single, lonely 1. That 1 marked this world, my home. If I was to return to it, it would not do to make it something difficult to remember. The Machine itself was controlled with a simple lever, which I would push forward to ascend the order of worlds, and reverse in order to descend them. It was with that lever that I would embark on my greatest journey.
"I began to exert pressure on the lever, but only the smallest I could manage at first. At once I noticed that the laboratory gained a misty, hazy perspective, as if I was viewing it through a bank of fog. Nonsense, I thought! I realized that it must be a result of what allows the machine to punch through to the next world, feeling quite rewarded in my vindication. With more courage making itself available, I pressed further on the lever, watching the lab shimmer and vanish before my eyes, taking those first steps into alternity."
"I will not preclude to bore you with the details of the first few worlds I encountered now; if you so wish to hear of them, speak to me directly at some later time. This story is truly about the seventh world on which I found myself, the seventh iteration of our familiar Earth on which the Worlds Machine found solid ground. I had wondered what might happen if the machine happened to come to occupy the same space as an object that had taken root where my laboratory was, but dismissed it as an acceptable risk. It was not until later I discovered that the machine would not materialize in alternity if it intersected anything at all physical.
"After the Machine shimmered into existence and the fog around me melted away, I gaped through the window-slits at the world in which I had arrived. There was no trace of my laboratory anywhere, which was not a thoroughly unexpected situation. What was unexpected, though, was that there was no trace of any construction other than my laboratory. Where it once stood, and for as far around as I could see through my own eyes and the Machine's cameras, there was naught but forest. I had been fortunate that the machine had materialized in a clearing, where there had stood nothing that could impede my arrival.
"My heart raced as my mind took stock of the possibilities. Why, perhaps this was a world where mankind had never managed to walk upon two legs and realize that he could think. Imagine the libraries upon libraries of information that could be gleaned from a planet that had never seen human contact! Pocketing the extra film, I threw the Kodak's carry strap over my neck, and did the same with that attached to the video camera. The gun was still there, and I felt no pressing need to remove it. Even if humanity did not exist on this world, it was a sure conclusion that at least some form of predator would.
"I cannot remember just how long I spent eagerly combing over the flora that bloomed in the clearing around the Machine. I took photos of several, as many photos as I could take, knowing full well that I would have more than enough pecuniary backing to recoup my losses once this knowledge was disseminated beyond my brain. I catalogued a full dozen flowering plants which I had never seen, creations that were elegant and alluring but simultaneously alien, in an odd fashion. I collected sample bags that I had carried in the Machine and placed each specimen of plant within one. They were to be my proof of this journey. It was then that I first felt a strange sensation impinging upon my consciousness.
"As I explain it, I realize that the thing I felt in my mind on that other world is not something which I can explain to you. As far as I know, words do not exist in our vocabulary that may describe it. Nevertheless, it was unmistakably there in the back of my mind, a visitating thing which I could not rightly explain. On a hunch, I resolved to set further out from the Worlds Machine, in an effort to locate the source of this strange sensation. I walked for several minutes, and as I did so it became only more pronounced, ascending to an alien symphony that played across my brain. I was perplexed and fascinated by it. I tried desperately to explain it to myself, but had no more success than I would have attempting to explain it to you.
"At long last, I saw her. Off in the distance, between the trees and leaves and flowers, I could distinctly see a woman's face. As I drew closer, I realized that she was the source of this reverbration in my mind. I wondered how such a thing was possible as I gazed at her. As I did so, she diverted her gaze from what had been the previous object of her attention and smiled at me, as if she had known that I was already there. She walked out of the forest ten or twenty feet ahead of where I stood on the path, and that is where I got my first glimpse of her.
"This woman was built like a horse -- or, more appropriately, a centaur. Her face was as familiar as any you might see along these streets, as was everything above her waist, but that was the extent of this lady's ability ot pass for a human. Below that she was built like Pegasus, four legs divided by a massive pair of feathered wings, the color of a dark blue metal. The legs themselves were wholly human in their design as well. I stood shocked at this unexpected wanderer, my mind empty of thoughts. She extended a hand in my direction.
"I regret, friends, that I cannot relate what transpired immediately after that, for the simple reason that I had fainted."
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Previously on Common Words:
this series is fondly dedicated to Mark Helprin, everyone's favorite copyright maximalist