Here’s an encouraging desktop wallpaper I made a few years ago. I hope you enjoy using it!
Lifeless and cratered, there wasn’t a hint of the world of their birth. Their beloved blue jewel had been replaced by something like the moon’s big sister, a pockmarked and scarred orb where nothing could live, nor ever had.
“Not possible,” Chidlow said.
“Oh, very possible,” Barzelay sounded thrilled.
“No,” Khan protested. “It’s an illusion, or some kind of trick.”
“Like aliens?” Anthea wondered.
“Branes,” Barzelay chuckled.
Anthea scowled, wondering if the old man was poking fun. Maybe he’d taken a knock to the head. “Brains?”
“This proves my theory,” the little man explained. “It’s all tied together, if you’ll allow me to be so droll.”
“What do you mean?” Khan floated to stand over Barzelay with a scowl. “What’s tied together.”
“String theory. Multiple dimensions. It’s the answer to what happened.”
“I know a little about string theory,” Anthea admitted.
“Sounds like scifi to me,” Chidlow said.
“It may have been, but not anymore,” Barzelay said. “I think we’ve stumbled across the first conclusive evidence of a working multiverse.”
“Dumb it down for us space jockeys.” Chidlow said.
“Hmm, I’m not sure I can,” Barzelay said, “but I’ll try. I may have to leave huge gaps here and there.”
“We’re not signing up for the Ph.D. course, Doc,” Chidlow said. “Just give us something to make us feel like we’re not just hallucinating.”
“Physicists like me have been trying to figure out how the universe works since before Einstein’s day. The problem is his work on general relativity, as wonderful as it was, doesn’t explain everything. His theories don’t square with other things we know about how the universe works, a part of science we call quantum mechanics.”
Khan sat with a thump, “You’re losing me, Montie. You’d better try to skip ahead some more.”
“Well, we’ve come up with thousands of ideas over the years on how to unify what we understand into a grand Theory of Everything. One of the branches of theoretical physics that’s shown the most promise over the years is string theory.”
“But how does that get us to the branes you were talking about?” Anthea asked.
“There were several string theories in contention. You might say they all complemented and contradicted each other at the same time. We couldn’t wholly accept or reject any of them. Then brane theory came along, specifically M-brane theory.
“In a nutshell, string theory postulated extra dimensions beyond the three common spacial dimensions and time. Brane theory went on to postulate further dimensions, and begin to give us rules about how those dimensions might behave. When carried out to their conclusion, the mathematics allowed for the possibility of multiple universes, each one layered on top of the other.”
Chidlow rolled her eyes and looked away toward the viewscreens. “Still sounds like scifi to me.”
“Let me see if I get what you’re saying,” Khan said. “Earth, our Earth, exists in one of these layers, and this other moon exists in another.”
“Yes,” Barzelay said, “that’s the general idea.”
“But then explain what’s going on here. It’s like our two layers got crossed or something.”
“Precisely,” Barzelay said. “The layers aren’t like flat sheets of paper stacked in a pile. They’re contorted masses whose shapes are always in flux. These layers might collide with one another anytime. I believe that’s what we’re experiencing, our layer has collided with one of our neighbors.”
“So this is a natural phenomenon?” Anthea asked. “If it is, why haven’t we seen it before?”
“For one, who says we haven’t?” Barzelay shrugged. “There’s unexplained phenomena throughout history, events we’ve dismissed as delusions or hoaxes. I’ve wondered if things like heavenly visions or ghostly sightings might be explained as the result of similar experiences, only on a smaller scale.”
“So it took the entire Earth seeing it to believe it,” Khan said.
“As you say,” Barzelay said.
“I wonder what happened to push their universe into ours?” Anthea asked.
“Based on the evidence, it’s likely the other way around,” Barzelay said. “We were shoved into theirs, and I think I have an idea what might have caused it.”
“What?” Chidlow asked.
“The new Very Large Hadron Collider in Antarctica,” Barzelay said. “It went online a few months ago.”
“You mean we did this to ourselves?” Khan asked.
“That is our tendency as a race, yes,” Barzelay conceded.
Tinker’s entire body shuddered, then he sighed as his eyes fluttered open once more, whether in relief or contentment it was hard to tell. Satisfied in some esoteric way Glance couldn’t fathom, he picked up his faceting tools and set to work.
Glance came over to watch the delicate process, standing well away from the gem for fear of flying shards. Like the Sun King, spinners gained their power from the absorption of light, storing it in their kojta. Sunstone could drain those stores, and prolonged contact would drain their life force, bringing about a slow, agonizing death. Glance had reason to be wary.
Tinker cut the gem down to size and gave it a good polish before setting it within the delicate works of the Warden’s pocket watch. He faced a moment’s hesitation before putting the thing back together. When he’d first cracked the watch casing open and found the broken sunstone within he’d considered telling the Warden he couldn’t fix it. Tinker’s repair of the item was proof positive he had connections inside the black market.
Block Wardens were low in grand hierarchy of the empire’s security forces. Someone in the upper echelons might be able to explain away possession of a sliver of sunstone by claiming ignorance and get by with a reprimand of some sort, but a low ranking block Warden would likely loose his job, if not his life. Tinker was confident they could count on one another’s silence on the matter.
Could be the block Warden didn’t know how his watch functioned and would be terrified if he knew. That could be leverage Tinker might use one day.
Tinker snapped the casing shut and held the pocket watch to his ear. The works within ticked along smoothly and he smiled in satisfaction. He set the watch aside and started putting his tools away.
He pulled a fat handled screwdriver from a drawer and unscrewed the end cap. He scooped up the leftover fragments of sunstone and stuffed them into the hollowed out handle. Lined with lead, it would fool any Sniffer who might inspect his flat. He screwed the cap back onto the end and placed it back in the drawer.
“So,” Tinker turned toward Glance, “tell me about this rumor.”
“Well,” she began, “scuttlebutt on the street says one of the Great Houses is looking for information about White Powder.”
Tinker grunted in dismissal. “That rumor again? If there is a Great House looking for the White Powder, then their downfall’s assured. The Emperor won’t stand for even a hint of betrayal. He’ll destroy them down to their most distant kin.”
“That’s the rumor,” Glance shrugged. “I’m not saying it’s true.”
“I’d lay odds the word was put out by a rival House trying to advance their position. The old Queen won’t last much longer, and the Great Houses are scrambling to get their eligible maidens in line.”
“I don’t understand why he puts on the pretense of having a Queen anyway. What do you get out of it when you’re an immortal who never produces an heir?”
“It’s all a charade, a thin veneer of respectability he uses to help keep peace among the commoners. What better way to keep a people voluntarily enslaved than to show honor to their traditions and values? Even the most devout will usually turn a blind eye if you take care of his basic needs and project at least a semblance of respect for his beliefs.”
“I guess you can get away with hypocrisy if you’re powerful enough.”
“Yeah,” Tinker agreed, “and one of the ways he confirms his power is by choosing a new Queen from among the Great Houses once every generation. When he gets around to choosing a girl, her House becomes the most favored for the next forty years or so. If the emperor can keep the Great Houses scheming against one another, that’s less time they’ll spend scheming against him.”
“So you think the rumor’s a ruse?”
Tinker shrugged. “Why spend your own blood and money disposing of a rival if you can get someone more powerful to do it for you?”
“Where does that leave us?” she asked.
“Us? It shouldn’t change a thing. As long as the Sun King’s on the throne our lives can’t and won’t change, no matter what some dreamers might think.”
“You don’t think the Sun King can be overthrown, even if someone could get their hands on the White Powder?”
“Humph,” he scoffed, “let’s assume White Powder isn’t just a myth. How do you discover the location of the world’s most closely guarded treasure and steal it from the most powerful being who’s ever lived? Are you serious? It took the combined strength of the Five to overthrow him the first time, and only one of them survived to tell the tale. Do you see anyone around today with that kind of power?”
“There’s talk of an army of spinners who…”
Tinker raised a hand and cut her off. “You lightspinners will never rise up as a unified force. You’re all too worried about your own skin to take such a risk.”
“I…I would,” she stammered, “if I knew there was an army of people fighting alongside me.”
“Maybe so,” Tinker raised a doubtful eyebrow, “but until your kind is willing to stand alone against all the odds, no army will ever materialize. You’re all waiting for someone else to put together this army for you so you can join it.”
Glance went silent, nervously chewing on an already ragged nail. Lightspinners were a skittish bunch by nature, afraid of their own shadows and protective of what few possessions they could name their own. Who could blame them? When your very existence has been outlawed, why would you do anything to draw attention to yourself?
“You got any food?” she said.
“There’s the other reason you come around,” Tinker jibed, making her blush. Pointing back to the corner he said, “Get yourself something from the cupboard, but just enough for yourself. Don’t let me catch you stuffing your pockets for your malcontent boyfriend.”
“Hey,” she protested, “he’s not a bad guy. He’s just been down on his luck.”
“Sure, down enough he would sell you out if it put a little gold in his pocket.”
Glance had no retort for the truth.
She found Tinker’s cupboard more bare than usual. A plate of something once resembling salt-cured ham sat gathering flies. Hungry as she was it temped her, but good sense won over and she gave it a pass. Some stale bread was made palatable with some honey and a bit of bitter ale to wash it down. She sat at Tinker’s workbench eating while he puttered on some gewgaw she didn’t recognize.
A loud knock on the door startled her, making her spit ale all over the table in fright.
“By the Light,” Tinker cursed, wiping spatters of ale off the widget in his hand.
“They followed me,” she hissed. Glance cowered in panic, her eyes darting every which way looking for an escape route.
Tinker grabbed her gently but firmly, giving her a little shake to get her attention. “No one’s looking for you, girl. You think any Wardens tracking you would be civil enough to knock? They’d just knock it down.”
Glance stopped struggling as Tinker’s words sunk in enough to calm her down.
“Now, you sit there and eat your bread like there’s nothing peculiar going on,” he said. “It’s just the block Warden come to pick up his watch. He’ll be gone before you know it.”